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Transparency Anyone?

The much touted openness and transparency in Fort Bragg's city government that has come out of the last few years of political wrath, general indignation and community opposition, is opened maybe a crack.

The City Council and all the committee meetings are online, which we wanted, but somehow it is not a great help to be able to see how government works when they are taking such pains to not to do anything. What things they actually are doing they are not doing openly. Certainly the arrangements that they make are not made at the meetings, so it all remains as opaque as ever.

I always go when I can to the mayor's open meeting on Monday morning. People come in with complaints about potholes and street lights and he writes it all down in his mayoral notebook. But frequently the same people, having dealt successfully with some aspect of city services, say something wistful about the impending Hare Creek development or about the GP mill site. They are wondering and waiting and hoping for a glimmer of leadership or for the hint of a plan or for any movement at all that could lead to a defined objective on the big opportunities that will define us as a city.

Mayor Lindy is breezy and politely unsure on all of that. You can’t expect too much. In my sight and hearing Lindy has been against , then for, then against and is now safely back on the fence again about Hare Creek. With Lindy it is not a single issue perplexity. It seems to be general.

When confronted with the Ruffing money grab of TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax / Bed Tax) money and the termination of the Visit Fort Bragg committee, he looked hurt and told me with feeling that the Committee was not going to be put out on the street for six more months. When I looked blank he explained that delay would give the City Council time to do something unexpected. I silently agreed that if they do anything it certainly will be unexpected.

Having the city council meetings and the committee meetings on-line is a great advantage to the people of the city, no question. The on-line direct to your home computer video is the stark record of what they do publicly, and it necessarily implies what they have done quietly behind closed doors to get where they are.

City Manager Linda Ruffing has shown great pride in the new transparency. She is actually strutting it. Rare indeed is the occasion where she does not mention how transparent we all are in Fort Bragg and in terms that make clear that it is all her own idea.

Ms. R has been city manager for 17 years. For most of that period the community council meetings were unattended. All we had was the official written minutes. Nobody knew anything. The Fort Bragg Advocate went right to Linda for the story, which she printed up for them every two weeks. There was no internet record of the meetings for her whole tenure.

The campaign to recall the mayor is almost two years old. The ballot initiative (Measure U) that was launched to throw a wrench in Linda's unique real estate manipulations was one year ago, followed by the overthrowing in two successive elections of every incumbent councilman except Turner who won re-election by 40 votes.

The city council meetings have been on line for a year, and in a truly accessible form for six months. Linda Ruffing claims to be pursuing transparency, I would say it seems to be pursuing her.

The abdication of our city council to the City Manager means you should understand that the important things will be swept under the rug. This is an essential element in the system. If Linda R were to bring before the council some item of consequence it would surely make them acutely uncomfortable and might kill the rest of us from surprise.

Not wanting to offend the council's fairly majestic complacency has meant in practice that the important things and the hard things and the problematic things are all systemically swept under the city hall rug. Linda Ruffing owns the rug and there is quite an accumulated pile of stuff under it by now. Most of the principle issues with which a responsible city council might concern itself live there permanently.

There is for example a $43 million unfunded liability for the desperately deteriorated sewer system. I am not talking about the waste treatment plant which is only a little over $10 million in completely unfunded but already spent public money. You would think it would worry them that they don’t actually have the money. That’s just it, they reason, it is because we don’t have it that someone will have to give it to us. Smart.

The $43 million unfunded liability is for the very pipes under your house, the pipes that bring you water and carry away waste. It is all basically gone. If you look with the unaided eye into the sewer grates on the street you will see toilet paper floating along down there. Not a good sign. Some of the main pipes that bring you water are made of hollowed out redwood logs. Kind of quaint, but the implication for effective city management is not so quaint and there is no plan or suggestion that the City Council knows or cares. City Manager Ruffing's rug is both comforting and useful, but it's getting crowded under there.

The mill site has been not stalled exactly but the City was participant in a multimillion dollar, 15-year long obstacle course extending across decades and somehow contriving to arrive as if by a divine intervention at the precise point from which it began. You don’t see that everyday. It would never have happened if key decisions were not swept under the rug.

Your own alley lives under the rug. If you are most folks you don’t have an actual alley, you have a mud track that bleeds water into the space under your house when it rains. Now there are alleys in our metropolis — fine ones — the ex-mayor has the best one. It cost $600,000 that the city got from the water control board . It is a model alley for sure and cost more than the projected cost of doing most of the alleys in town. Linda Ruffing has a nice new alley — not as nice as the ex-mayor’s — but very nice. The rest of the alleys: under the rug.

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