I stopped by the Fort Bragg Advocate’s new offices last week to attend the goodbye party for Sharon DiMauro, the retiring publisher of our local paper, The Fort Bragg Advocate. I wanted to see who would show up to say goodbye and of course I got to eat cookies on her dime. She graciously took our picture and sent it to me. As usual I look unkempt and questionable.
It is one thing for people to say that the professionals at City Hall have kept vital information from the public and the City Council to achieve a hidden agenda of their own devising. It is another thing to prove it. Readers and writers must both work hard to see behind the scenes in any government. First of all there must be investigators and writers. The operatives who inhabit City Hall make it their daily business to hide many important truths from the people and the City Council. They have a few tricks, but over the years they have come to rely heavily on our only local newspaper to consistently miss the story. Wonderfully, that simple thing of not seeing makes secrecy possible. By omission of news the Advocate has made itself Fort Bragg City Manager Linda Ruffing’s most powerful tool of deception. Without the local paper she could never have pulled off her reign of secrecy.
Long ago the publishers and writers at the Advocate made a basic decision to put the weight of their editorial and news-gathering (and news omitting) mojo behind the City Manager. Whether they like no news or not (most hate it) Advocate readers are bored to know that the little paper will labor with diligence to spin any story in Linda’s favor or more simply to pan anything that might reflect badly on her.
Not a few Fort Bragg folks see this selectivity and omission as the right thing, the proper thing, the necessary thing. According to this view the powerful organizing capacities of the City Manger are basic to the well being of the city. According to this wisdom the Advocate has only shown a humble editorial reverence for Linda’s superhuman capacities.
When they are asked about it they will tell you that this concern is founded in responsibility. They decline to confuse our untutored and bewildered population with unnecessary complexities. Examining public policy too closely produces stress and upset in people who are not used to it. The exposure of wrongdoing is distressing, bad for business. Our hometown paper understands that it is not their business to be disruptive. For as long as I have been in Fort Bragg The Advocate has been fully committed to maintaining public tranquility without which they avow the City could never prosper.
Of course there is a newspaper besides the Advocate if you know where to look for it, but if the city has to borrow its brains and guts from Anderson Valley it really is too bad.
Scott Menzies’ “Go Fort Bragg” certainly supports the Advocate. They like it. Their tiny organization has invented an actual ideology of the happily uninformed. According to them courtesy and togetherness are the main thing. If there are problems it is best to leave the responsibility for them to qualified people. Harmony and comfortable simplicity is the total platform and agenda of the Go organization. What they mean is for Linda to Go forth and bring home the bacon, and for the rest of you to Go away. Or at least shut up.
I spoke briefly with Linda Jupiter last week. For those of you who do not know, she is a cultured, erudite and highly involved public citizen who I like very much and with whom I disagree on almost every political subject. I think she is a fair representative of the Go faction. Certainly she is a strong supporter of the city system under the command of City Manager Linda Ruffing. Without my prompting, she at once acknowledged the implications of the new City Council on the job security of the City Manager.
In a worried and concerned way she told me that she was not worried. The dire implications of the election have been exaggerated. There is nothing to worry about — Linda will survive and prosper as she always has, Ms. Jupiter said, looking into the distance reflectively. Whatever it is, Linda can handle it.
She has a point.
Of course everyone with a professional interest or a hand in the pot and City Hall has done their very best in the last few weeks since the election to put a provisionally happy face on the election. Linda Jupiter’s confessed concern was but a tiny breech in the wall of Go complacency behind which they yet hunker.
Maybe the optimists at City Hall have it right. The new councilmen are not — at least to look at them— barbarians, and so it is still reasonable to hope that they will not violate that basic principle of congeniality and courtesy behind which past city council administrations have always hidden as they declined to do the people’s business.
It is true that these newbie councilmen made little rude noises when they were running, but these were after all minimal. If the last election was notable for anything it was the depth and breadth of what was not said.
All the same, a lot of us thought that in the door to door campaign, and very certainly in the expectations of the people who came out and voted, it was damn clear that the new guys were elected to put a wrench in business as usual policies of City Hall and to stop the raging inertia and crude misdirection of civic policy by City Magager Linda.
Only one of the five candidates for the City Council made it his program to endorse and support the long term policies of the professional urban planning professionals at City Hall.
The two councilmen who got elected and the two who did not, all made it the basic premise of their campaigns that they would at least shake the foundations a little. We thought they were promising to oppose the root rot and implacable inertia that possesses our fair city. We thought that we had their promise to not be afraid to buck the heretofore unopposed City Manager.
One cannot contemplate the economic/political landscape in Fort Bragg without the fair admission that the big projects that the City has to face have up to this point routinely and officially been swept beneath the official rug. It is pretty raw. I was not the only one who assumed there was a strong implication that the new Council, if we got one, would fire Linda Ruffing. We had the idea that was what the candidates meant by courage.
Now the City has awakened to find that whether the City Council likes it or not they have fallen under the protective umbrella of deliberate non-reporting. It may not be that conducive to the reform that they campaigned for, but it really does take the pressure off.
I wrote recently about the partial collapse of the dam on Pudding Creek because some poor guy overslept. I wrote indignantly that Linda in her formal presentation to the Council had with plain and evident contempt for veracity chalked the whole thing up to natural causes, not mentioning any oversleeping.
It is not that I wanted particularly to blame anybody, but there were numerous small gaps and holes in the City Manager’s story. I thought the Council should react.
But no, the City Council sat quietly and obediently through the whole performance. I assumed that they had been fooled. It was only as the weeks went by that I discovered all of them, or at the least most of them, knew about the oversleeping at the time, and knew very well that Linda was shilling and covering and amplifying and omitting. I guess it is a given that she is going to choreograph her performances at Council meetings.
The Monday after the Friday that Sharon DiMauro had her retirement gathering, I saw Chris Calder, the editor of the Advocate, at Headlands Cafe. I bump into him from time to time. He always looks like he suspects that if provoked I might bite, but within limits he is cautiously congenial.
“New publisher cleaning house?” I asked without much irony as we put stuff in our coffee.
“Oh yes,” Calder said. ”There are a lot of things that she wants to cover.”
“Bummer,” I replied “I thought I could milk it all for my own paper.”
He sort of laughed.
* * *
A few hours before the last City Council meeting I met with an unnamed source deeply involved in City Hall operations. Although this cannot at this time be confirmed, in direct conversation with the City Manager, this individual was told that a member of the City Council could not put an item on the agenda.
The Fort Bragg City Council agenda is a list of items that will be discussed by the Council at their meetings. The agenda is the blueprint for the meeting. Deviation from it during a Council meeting is possible in an abstract way, just as discussion, questions and debate are in theory possible. In practice, none of it happens very much.
In Fort Bragg our form of self-government is a kind of political theater in which the Councilmembers march down those items on the agenda under the watchful gaze of the City Manager who writes the agenda and decides what is and what is not on it. In a worst case scenario a Councilman might raise a few points of objection before he caves.
Those items that are in any degree controversial or are direct giveaways, personal favors, or involve in some manner public safety are relegated to the consent calendar, which is that portion of the agenda that is explicitly exempt from discussion. A safe zone. Items are rarely but occasionally removed from the consent calendar upon the objection of a Councilman. It happens. Rarely.
The system is what it is. I could possibly object to the terms of the Brown Act, but if I want to piss in the wind there's no blow back on the Haul Road.
The law of California is not only explicit in its description of how things have to work as a system, it also says clearly and boldly, and I think nobly, that in California, general law cities with a councilor government, which Fort Bragg is and has, the City Council is tasked with providing the vision and the purpose for our local government. It is for the Council, not the City Manager, to discern the interests of the people and the direction of policy.
The City Council does none of these things, although they always claim that they are going to when they are running for election. The City Manager handles all of it by putting her agenda through in the Agenda.
So, when my unnamed source told me that City Councilmen were not able to put anything on the agenda, I went to the meeting, and at the appointed time rose and went to the podium to seek clarification and understanding. I was pretty sure of my source, damn sure of the character and integrity of this individual. I also have a depth of experience with the prevarications and misrepresentations of the City Manager and know full well and from my own personal experience that what she says privately or in committee meetings may or may not be what she says in the Council meetings.
But on this particular point I was indignant certainly, but not entirely sure of the actual facts. So when I got up there I spoke with uncharacteristic humility, asking rather than stating an accusation, which is more my style, generally speaking.
The City Council, under the great defining law of the State of California (the Brown Act) is not allowed to respond to public comment. They must sit there like Buddha and try not to roll their eyes or grind their teeth. However, as we know such a rigid restraint is too much for them in many instances.
The former mayor, Dave Turner, of unfortunate memory, used to abuse David Gurney with no visible restraint at all. They all do it to some degree. This time when I asked my little question, or actually made my allegation in the form of a question, The Linda herself jumped like she'd been pinched and made an immediate clarification.
Oh no no no, saith she. A Councilman can put something on the agenda anytime he wants.
Samantha Zutler, the city attorney from The City (San Francisco) also chimed in and cited the Brown Act for my edification, promising more detail when she and I could arrange a few minutes. I sat down chastened and informed, wondering.
What is said privately in Linda Ruffing's office of course can not be known. But the nature of the City Council meeting, including the institution of the agenda and the form of government that it represents, are known to everyone. In a matter of substance or controversy, when a vote of the Council is mandated, the matter under consideration must be made known to the public at least 72 hours prior to the meeting. Only fair, right?
The voting public has observed that this is done by printing in tiny print a notice buried in the legal notices alongside the fictitious business names and other interesting legal stuff.
When so noticed the Council votes four days later. That gives the public time to brace themselves. Four days, well, two whole days, and a weekend is thought to be plenty of time for the public to contemplate what might be done to them. As a system it would tend to keep one on one’s toes. Unfortunately for the public tranquility, social media generally is able to mobilize fairly effectively even in that short interval. The City Council retaliates for the embarrassment of pubic outrage when it occurs by voting in four days anyway, even on (especially on) matters of controversy. But at the least we get to see them do it.
The agenda itself only arrives at the doorsteps of the City Council four days before a Council meeting. The consent calendar, those points of consideration that are detached from Council consideration, arrives in the same four days.
Think of it as a kind of game. From the time the agenda leaves the City Manager to the time that the bewildered Council acts, is a mere four days. Some very few things go to committee but most things don’t. The City Manager puts what she wants moved right past public or Council opposition or debate in the shortest (legally) possible time on the consent calendar. It is a kind of political slider.
I thought to myself after the meeting that I had never had the experience of actually seeing an item brought to the Council by a Councilman, but it was nice to know that it could have happened. Or even that it might in some ideal future.
The next day I had occasion to speak to my unnamed source. Of course they could not confirm the content of a private session with The Linda but the source gave me another interesting tip (clue?). The manual issued this year for the first time to assist the newbie Councilmen in the performance of their duties, is quite an improvement on the Nothing that has been issued to incoming Councilmen until now.
This document has many interesting features. It is beautifully done in vivid color with binders and dividers and a comprehensive description of Council duties and privileges.
It says not one word about putting an item on the agenda.