It started out as a grouch, a gesture of mild derision directed at an apparently uninterested city council looking the other way as big ugly box store barreled down on a sleepy city.
Monday night I again chucked my resolution not to speak during public comments, not because of some surprise indignation. No. This time I knew what I was saying. There was just such a a big damn hole in the council discussion.
The Hare Creek big box was coming. Most folks don’t want it, the council that approves it is doomed. Among all the community groups that oppose it, there is no one who has any idea how to stop it. My complaint was that at the Fort Bragg City Council there had been not a word spoken about it.
The rolling green meadow lands loved by the people of the city are going to be plowed up, the hill hacked off, the trees cut down and we are to have yet another big box retailer shoveling our community cash into armored cars and driving away with it, and sucking up the very last of our available water as they go.
The Costal Commission — the agency which is supposed to be California's Coast protector of last resort — is engaged in ritualistic dithering, signifying nothing.
The public is permitted to make comments while everyone in Fort Bragg city government knows and has known, that unless something changes the big box nightmare is a forgone conclusion.
What, I asked, was the City Council doing? Very few issues that might come before the council would affect the future of Fort Bragg like the Hare Creek big box project. In the face of impending disaster the council was completely disengaged. I wanted to know why.
At a convenient moment Councilman Will Lee told me that the council had been told by the city manager not to remark on Hare Creek. The City Council had been carefully instructed that any comment whatsoever on this proposed disaster would disqualify that councilman from voting on it. If anybody so much as squeaks they would have to recuse themselves from the vote.
That cleared it up, No discussion of Hare Creek because of a gag order.
When I first inquired on this matter at City Hall, the assembled staff could not at once find the specific law which mandated the gag. But City Development Director Marie Jones the very next day gave me the lowdown docs. And the truth as it turns out is as ambiguous and complicated as anything Tammany Hall could cook up.
Not to be tedious but therelevant statutes are:
1. Cal. Gov't Code §§ 25121(county ordinance adoption procedures), 36932 and following (city ordinance adoption procedures).
2. See Cal. Gov't Code § 54950 and following. See also "The ABCs of Open Government Laws" published by the Institute for Local Government and available at www.ca-ilg.org/abc.
3. Cal. Gov't Code § 1094.5. See also NashaL.L.C. v. City of Los Angeles, 125 Cal. App. 4th 470, 482, 22 Cal.Rptr. 3d 772, 780 (2d Dist. 2004).
But the applications of the law are so variously applied in thousands of communities that it has become a jobs program for lawyers.
Boiled down it's a gag order, and how did we get to a place where the elected people of a small town council can't discuss a project that will so fundamentally affect their town?
According to the case law and the California statutes the gist is that if a councilman has any opinion at all they are required in certain circumstances (such as hearings) to pretend that they don’t. This is more useful than it appears because by this pretense they propose that you accept that they will lbe objective. Judicious .
The gag order was deliberately exaggerated in the city manager's description to the council. City Hall knows very well that the council is new on the job and bluffable so they bluffed them to get us a big box.
We are constantly told what a good job city hall is doing — you have to admit it was a effective bluff, made effective by a major omission. A bluff well calculated to keep a project coming that the City Manager and the Development Director have always been institutionally biased toward.
The council can, if has the stones, make their way legally to full discussion. If they want to lead they can.
Because the council is somewhat new and perhaps a little naive the no-discussion mandate on Hare Creek amounts to a free ride for the developer .
There was not enough water for our population last year. Salty water was coming out of our taps. Even in non-drought years we have finite sources of water.
Hare Creek matters in many ways. The council should be all about it. The water element was the crucial factor in the decision to delay the project till now. The City Council recently made a vapid gesture to the Public Works Director Tom Vargas to address desalination. Why not now propose comprehensive community legislation defining Water Security?
The council needs to make more than a gesture to water. The city badly needs to rationalize an irrational water system. It has to happen anyway, it should happen now. No one will mention Hare Creek. Just water.