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Budget Day in Fort Bragg

The City of Fort Bragg convened at Town Hall for a full day budget workshop bright and early last Wednesday morning. They had coffee but only a modest bowl of grapes to go with it. Since it was a budget meeting they made it lean and mean: no donuts. Long tables had been arranged into a big square in the center of the room. Around it fifteen bureaucrats charged with the administration of the city sat armed with identical fat glossy binders to confess their deeds, declare their intentions and receive the sanction and the benediction of the elected City Council that the people’s money might continue to flow.

The eight hour budget meeting was on line so we can assume that those various news gatherers, bloggers and citizen activists, of whom there are many, were watching at home, but other than me there was no one from the community physically present.

It must have been an easy day for whatever reporter was assigned from the Advocate since we know that no word of inquiry, no breath of analysis will result in that paper from this crucially revealing, and complex meeting.

The Advocate may report that a meeting occurred. Only your reporter from the AVA, gentle reader, a solitary, isolated and sadly scruffy figure sat outside of the circle taking notes furiously, grasping at implications as they went thundering by and making a long list of stories that needed to be written. In every sense the whole scene was a vivid metaphor for the constellation of the City Council, the bureaucrats, and the press in Fort Bragg such as it is.

For City Hall Budget Day is Game Day. The objective of the City Manager's team was to sooth the pretensions of the Fort Bragg City Council to effective management of the $54 million (as we learned) annual city expenditure and to keep the lid on. Don’t look at that man behind the curtain.

As everyone on both sides of the fence knows, in Fort Bragg municipal policy has been manhandled away from all public control and operates flagrantly and casually in opposition to the best interests of the community — unless you are on the receiving end of the money.

We are dependent for what representation we have on a City Council that is totally marginalized, subordinated to institutional momentum and hog tied by the Brown Act. In spite of quickly forgotten election rhetoric, all of them are apparently ok with taking their marching orders from the City Manager. They differ in style from the old council, but only in style. The old council boasted of harmony, the new council boasts of dragging their feet. Neither one has shown the energy, discipline, creativity or interest in the city to make a single substantive policy proposal. Not one.

Budget Day was Game Day in Fort Bragg not because there is opposition to the City Manager. But because the volume of what we do not know as a city — and our representatives decline to know as a City Council — is so enormous that the operators at city hall have too much at stake in keeping it so.

There were some petty fireworks, mostly from Cueball (Councilman Cimolino) but they were sparklers, not roman candles, certainly not rockets. The glossy binders marched to victory fundamentally unattenuated by the novices and amateurs who represent us.

The Council understood a version of their duty as it has been explained to them. One by one they all stepped up to the situation at appropriate moments. They asked as many questions as they could think of (which was not many) but not having any fundamental plan of action of their own they did nothing to impede or fundamentally question the galloping agenda of the city manager. The council, (somewhat) new in their jobs, saw it to be their business to provide careful courteous corrections. They limited their remarks to a few procedural quibbles.

The exception as I noted was Cueball: Mike Cimilino. He is possibly the most intelligent and certainly most knowledgeable councilman elected in my experience. His 29 years of work for the city of Fort Bragg prior to his election has acquainted him with city infrastructure in the hands-on, real-time way that a good mechanic understands a car. He has a decades long familiarity with city hall politics and owns a libertarian bias that tends to set him somewhat apart from the ethos of the rubber-stamp.

Councilman Cimilino knew that City Hall was using the water and sewer enterprise moneys to cover extraneous contingencies on occasion. Having the facts on observable discrepancies in hiring practices which jumped that particular curb, he tried to raise the question of propriety and legality. Slopping funds around between the various departments (enterprises) is proscribed by law, but normally no one is paying attention so the financial peccadilloes do little apparent harm. Of course it corrupts the system, but that disturbs nobody at City Hall. As Cueball demonstrated in his rather desperate remarks, the City Council as a whole does not even understand that there is an issue.

Cimilino poked around at the road-kill of legal process left in the wake of the city manager’s brute force management style, but Ms. Ruffing found no difficulty in reducing his remarks to footnotes. Mike was out there by his lonesome. He got a little steamed and very pale but his remarks made no apparent impression on the rest of the council and Mayor Lindy Peters smoothed things out with ambiguous assurances that they would look at things later.

Will Lee piped up at one point with obviously pre-considered remarks about the abyss of debt into which the city (and the county) were merrily plunging. One suspects that he had a fantasy that it would be discussed. That got him nothing.

And on they went.

There were of course questions that you would ask, gentle reader about every aspect of the budget and once in a while they were articulated in mutterings while the rubber-stamp came down on chapter after chapter of Ms. Ruffing’s pet budget.

There were literally dozens of stories that went swimming by in the swift flowing stream of presentation. I have a healthy list, but the most inescapable takeaway was how little things have changed under the advent of what I once called the new city council.

In the high and far off time, six years ago the then-Fort Bragg city council, now disgraced and given the boot, used to tell us that cordial cooperation and professional congeniality was their unfailing watchword and only policy. The new members of the council which is everybody but Turner ran for office in opposition to a happy-face insolence masquerading without much wit as professionalism. The new council which has come to us in two elections two by two promised to drag their feet when the City Manager whistled, and they have. Foot dragging at the Fort Bragg city council is in. But policy and initiative are as alien to these guys as they were to the happier and dumber city council that the voters have jettisoned.

Meet the new boss: same as the old boss.

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