On Sunday, May 7th, our Anderson Valley Advertiser's online edition feature “Mendocino County Today” contained a relatively brief notice alluding to a Fort Bragg City Council Closed Session item concerning the city's “significant exposure” to anticipated litigation. A link was provided to the City of Fort Bragg's website along with this bit of supposition, “No official word yet on what it all means, but the City of Fort Bragg may be cracking down on the Hospitality Center and/or Hospitality House for violation of HC's use permit. And/or the Hospitality Center may be preparing to sue Fort Bragg for cracking down on them.”
Operating on my own hunch that the latter guesswork was the one potentially linked to the closed session item I ventured to the podium during the public comment section of the regular City Council meeting on Monday evening, May 8th to frame a question about the possibility of the powers-that-be at Fort Bragg's Hospitality House and/or Hospitality Center threatening the city government with litigation. City councils almost never respond to public comments about closed session items, but they are allowed to refute public comments that are obviously erroneous. After reenforcing that idea, I put it to the council in a straightforward statement, 'the Board of Directors of Hospitality Center/House is considering legal action against the City of Fort Bragg.'
There was no comment from Mayor Lindy Peters, the rest of the council, nor City Manager, Linda Ruffing. The interpretation: No comment, meant no refutation of the statement I offered; meaning, Yes, Hospitality House/Center is threatening the City of Fort Bragg with legal action.
The reason for the potential litigation stems from what occurred at the March 22nd Public Safety Committee meeting at Fort Bragg's Town Hall. The major takeaway from that event was City Manager Ruffing stating that Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center would have to file for an amendment to their 2003 use permit regarding the twice daily food program at Hospitality House on McPherson [sic] Street. The 2003 use permit contained the following statement: “The City is not authorizing an increase in the intensity of use at the site…” In the 13 years since the 2003 permit was granted the number of bed nights at Hospitality House has risen from about 6,000 per year to slightly over 7,000 annually, while the number of meals served has nearly doubled from approximately 12,000 per year in 2003 to over 23,000 in 2016.
Hospitality House and Hospitality Center have frequently touted the numbers of “clients” they serve as a public relations means as well as a reason for grant monies, but they have taken little responsibility for problems caused by those “clients,” including frequent disruptions to surrounding businesses. The President of Hospitality Center's governing board, Lynelle Johnson, pretty much takes a high and mighty position, something akin to: We (Hospitality) are feeding the poor and homeless and (some would say) “allegedly” helping the mentally ill, so the surrounding businesses be damned. Johnson has her supporters, a goodly number of coast residents who are blind to the on-the-street realities of the downtown locales of Hospitality House and Center. Some of these supporters are not hesitant to point fingers and cast aspersions at anyone who dares speak out about the problems created by Hospitality House or Center. On the Mendocino Coast it is harder to find a sharper-tongued or meaner-spirited soul than a holier-than-thou supporter of Hospitality Center or House.
Confusing the issue is Fort Bragg City Manager Ruffing who, at times, has seemingly gone out of her way to shield Hospitality House and Hospitality Center from criticism, going so far as to withhold dozens of emails from a downtown business owner from City Council members for approximately three weeks.
The newer members of Fort Bragg's City Council (four of them have served less than two and a half years) appear to want a different approach when it comes to Hospitality. Emblematic of the new council was the removal of an item from the March 13th Consent Calendar by Councilman Bernie Norvell. That item would have approved a bid to roof the historic Guest House for an amount $57,000 over estimate ($237,000 compared to the $180,000 original estimate). After much discussion about prior bids, the source of the estimate, roofing materials, and hand wringing that turning down the bid might lead to a much longer wait to get a needed repair accomplished, former Mayor Dave Turner motioned and current Mayor Lindy Peters seconded approval of the $237,000 roofing bid. However, Norvell, Vice-Mayor Will Lee (both elected in 2016) and Councilman Mike Cimolino (elected in November, 2014) voted no.
At the May 8th City Council meeting the Guest House roofing project returned to the agenda. This time with a bid of $178,500 (from a Salt Lake City based construction company), $1,420 less than the original estimate. In other words the three “No” votes by Norvell, Lee, and Cimolino in March saved the city nearly $60,000.
In fairness to Turner, he ackowledged his March stance as an error and reversed his vote on May 8th, as did Peters. It should be stated that as far as matters concerning Hospitality House and Hospitality Center go, Mayor Peters and Councilman Norvell have been at the front of the line when it comes to raising serious questions.
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An impending lawsuit might explain why no one from the Hospitality Center bothered to show up at the April 19 public safety committee meeting when discussion about Hospitality Center issues brought up in earlier meetings was on the agenda. So the committee decided that the matter would be continued until the next meeting, on May 17, so Hospitality Center representatives could take part.
Upcoming agenda items on the Fort Bragg website for the May 17 meeting shows “Discuss Objectives, Timelines and Goals for Hospitality House and Hospitality Center.” But it’s not on the May 17 agenda. That’s too bad for the people of Fort Bragg who took time off in the middle of a workday to speak at the April meeting. They did not get the chance then and were put off until this month, only to be shut out again. That’s a good example of how to discourage the public from taking part in government meetings.
How are the very real systemic problems with the Hospitality Center organization going to be resolved without them being open to criticism and responding to it publicly? Our hard-earned taxes paid for all of those grants and it’s foolish to keep throwing good money after bad. When will we learn? They are currently the only game in town when it comes to helping the homeless so why the continued disfunctional attitude when it comes to helping them do a better job? Not that including them would improve the situation, but where is the county partner in all of this? They are responsible for social services, not the city of Fort Bragg.
If the Hospitality Center sues Fort Bragg, or even if they threatened to do so, it is a sign that a new organization with transparent goals, a good reputation and a willingness to be a good neighbor should be invited into town. There are organizations that are actually effective and have a good rapport with their communities. Ours is not one of them but this mess may be what is needed to get them to face reality and make some major changes at the top or pass the baton.
Let’s not forget when reports are given at City Council meetings so much of the information given by representatives of the Hospitality Center/Hospitality House is really questionable.
The last update was given by Ms. Johnson and Paul Davis of the Hospitality Center. Ms. Johnson came prepared with a powerpoint presentation. She praised the local business people for being such huge supporters of the soon to open Old Coast Cafe and told how local businesses would be helping to set the Cafe up for them. (Mayor Peters had visited local businesses and knew this wasn’t true) He questioned Ms. Johnson about saying how much support the business community had given. Ms. Johnson’s reply was “No, I didn’t say that”.
Then there was Paul Davis speaking about the lack of response to the local business person for months regarding the nuisance and mess being created around her business. (these were the emails Malcolm referred to)Mr. Davis’s response sounded as though everyone was mistaken and he had an ongoing dialog with the business person. Mr. Davis then went on to claim people who sit across the alley are not part of their program.
Let’s not forget Mr. Johnson’s report last year regarding the $187,000.00 Giving Garden. He commented that the garden was really for teaching grooming and interviews.
How can an organization who has their hand out for money constantly come into meetings and make statements like this and not be expected to answer to the community when it obvious there is something very wrong going on?