I was reading at the Headlands Café, waiting for six o’clock to roll around as city councilmen started trudging in one by one to get a caffeine booster shot in anticipation of the council meeting. “Aren’t you going to cover the riot?” Councilman Bernie Norvell asked me as he added sugar.
Well, it wasn’t that, but sure enough, outside of Fort Bragg Town Hall about 20 unionized city employees were walking around in a circle chanting and stomping about fair treatment and more money. I was amused to see several distinctly white collar city hall operatives who in regular life behind their desks are coldly without sympathy for the presumption of courteous inquiring dissent, yelling right along with the rest of them and avoiding eye contact with me.
Inside Town Hall was eerily empty except for our charming City Clerk and the assembling City Council. Between themselves they were wondering out loud if the disturbance in the force was an actual picket line and if they were going to be doing business to an empty hall. When six o’clock finally rolled around the union folks marched off and a few folks started to trickle in. A tactical error. The union leaders should have pushed. No one was going to stop them even if they did draw a picket line. I don’t think anyone would have crossed it.
The council meeting was supposed to be small stuff. But you have to watch out for the City Manager when the agenda is modest. She misses no occasion to send sliders over the plate. Low key meetings for the ruthless and tireless Linda are a nice opportunity to steal a base. Sure enough the consent calendar contained bitter outrage; and the staid city council did not interrupt the easy flow of the evening’s process to raise a fuss.
I have written before, perhaps too much, about the increase in the Fort Bragg sales tax approved by the voters last November in Measures AA and AB. The initiative, although approved by the voters, was a humble offering by the old city council to the sixteen already well healed businessfolks who own our local Inns and hotels in the hope that they might somehow save us. Since we have virtually no other industry which compares with Inns and hotels, it was decided that it would be wise to provide a cash vitamin for our faltering village in the form of tourism promotion. The money came from an increase in the sales tax and went to the city. The city did not do anything but they gave a little bit of the new money to the Visit Fort Bragg committee. That committee, run by the famously efficient, clever and dedicated Sharon Davis, who is also president of the Chamber of Commerce, kicked some booty.
I supported this enterprise of promotion by Visit Fort Bragg for several reasons. First simply it worked. They got us on social media in a big bad way. The increases in response from California and the world were in the thousands of percentage points.
It was also clear to me that the integration of local people of talent into the business of the city interjected a dynamic of self interested responsibility and free market effectiveness into city functions routinely conducted by a boorishly unimaginative city hall team of unfireable functionaries.
The city of Fort Bragg got to observe over a period of months Linda Ruffing taking profound offense at the success of Visit Fort Bragg and working with determination to put an end to all of that initiative and imagination. She hacked the Visit Fort Bragg budget in half, declaring that the money should be spent instead by city hall. She glibly and unintelligibly lied to the council that by some magic there would need not be a wit less work done on the city’s business if city employees were mandated to do the work that Visit Fort Bragg had done previously. No one ever challenged her on this odd fiction.
Last Monday as the consent calendar went sailing by like a great free bird past the sleepy city council a careful observer could note that the City Manager had inserted an expenditure that will hire a consultant to guide the clueless city management in their usurpation of what was working so well before they fixed it.
In a little city like ours, most of what they do at City Hall is known to everybody — even though the bureaucrats like to pretend everything important is over most heads except those of the insiders. That is not true of course, so I doubt that the deviltry of hiring consultants will come as a revelation to you.
But if ever there was a subject in which the scorn and mockery of the public ought to find an object it would be consultants. They are paid extravagant sums to do the thinking that gray bureaucracies have not the courage to do and to exercise the common sense which is so strangely mysterious to public officials. I can recall $25,000 doled out to a consultant to tell the Starr Center folks how to hire a plumber to move a pipe three feet. The engagements of high priced consultants are innumerable and routine. Their recommendations are often entertainingly off the wall. Consultants are indispensible to city government, not so much because they provide answers as because they offer convenient scapegoats should anything go wrong. Also it is wisdom to float occasional cash to a community of potential employers for city hall higher ups just in case anything should go really wrong. All in all it is money well spent.
Now we know how Linda intends to improve upon the success of Visit Fort Bragg. She is hiring a consultant to tell her what to do. Perhaps this explains why she was able to assure the council that no money would be spent on city employees doing the actual work. I recall now that she did not say that money would not be spent, only that it would not be spent on the staff at city hall. I stand corrected.
Of course no one on the council batted an eye, they had accepted Linda’s firm intention long ago. Water under the bridge. After they gave the wink and the nod to the City Manager’s consent calendar the City Council and the often (mostly) missing in action Development Director got down to serious self congratulation over the Coastal Trail. At long last we heard that the estimable Marie Jones had overcome all objections and obstacles and obtained the cash and permissions required to link the southern and the northern sections of the Coastal Trail where they converge at the sewage treatment plant. There was considerable and perhaps unavoidable rhetoric of appreciation for the many years of work that the Development Director has devoted to the business of putting a trail around the toxic millsite. It was clear that the few attendees at the meeting including the effective and informed George Reinhardt and the irreparably misinformed and ineffective Ed Oberweiser had all come to raise eyebrows. I guess. They did not speak. Perhaps they had come because they feared that the successful and glorious unification of the trail sections would amount to a diversion from the thwarted ambitions of the community to actually use the mill site. Everybody knew that the site has been worked on for fifteen laborious years at the expense of the Koch brothers who have been glad to pay for exactly as much as could be squeezed out them. Daylighting the creeks means exposing the creeks to the sun and nature thus creating living streams out of the several channels that drain the city stormwater and empty into the dioxin laden ponds.
The ambition of daylighting creeks has, under George Reinhardt’s clever and well funded guidance, become the center of community focus. Actually what people want to see happen out there is something. They would really like to use the mill site, or at least see someone use it. Daylighting the creeks would be something. It implies public access. Our Development Director has informed the city from the vantage of her expertise and even conducting tours to do it, that it will take at least fifteen years to do this daylighting thing. Of course that melancholy estimate supposes that Ms. Jones will continue in her supervision of the project. If she is by some grace of God replaced as development director there could be a more optimistic estimate. But that’s how it stands right now.
The little group of folks at the meeting were miserably unreceptive to the glorification of Marie’s Coastal trail triumph. They have heard it all before. This meeting was just a sort of declaration of efficiency for the benefit of her bosses. We only got what the city has been promised for years. It was nice for Marie no doubt, but for the attendees the surprise and joy had gone out of it. But not the controversy. Questions remain. The people of the city know that the State Department of Toxic Substances Control is coming to town one more time at the end of this month. This trip they are coming to deliver us to our fate. The DTSC is the “blue ribbon” agency which has orchestrated and overseen the cleanup of the mill for these last fifteen years. Now that they are wrapping it up, they have the problem of leaving gracefully to Fort Bragg a dangerously polluted mill site including dixoins, lead, arsenic, you name it. Our little town will still own a whole bouquet of death dealing poisons. The last important job of this very important agency is to convince us to like it.
When I said as much to the city council in my three minutes of public comment I thought I had done my pathetic bit for civic sanity and being somewhat worried about the dogs in the car (I always am) I was making a quiet and inobtrusive exit out of a sparsely attended meeting . Suddenly I heard what I at first thought was the voice of God but later discovered to be our former mayor Dave Turner. Dave boomed out a mighty “Hold it, don’t go a step further” command at extreme volume over the loudspeaker directed shockingly at me. I stopped and leaned on a chair and listened to Mayor Turner (I still think of him as mayor but he’s ex-mayor I guess) tell me that they had after all done their very best. The city council had made it clear to DTSC that in Fort Bragg the City Council was not going to sit on their butts and accept the abdication of the state of California and the Department Of Toxic Substances Control. Unfortunately, as he knows and I knew, the City Council has nothing to do with it. DTSC makes the call. Dave was firm they would keep on trying. Then deflating a bit he said, “I don’t know what else we can do.” He sounded quite decent.
"Thank you Mr. Mayor," I said, and left.
The recently released DTSC feasibility study, is the last step in the fifteen years of official oversight of the mill cleanup. This last study targets a few spots for earth removal and just flatly leaves many other toxic locations in place. It advises deed restrictions. These are permanent impositions on the use of sections of the mill site, and advises caution and limited access for other areas. The whole removal process will be over in three weeks. City Manager Linda Ruffing breezily told the council before realizing that was the opposite of what they wanted to hear. They will remove 1800 cubic yards, easy peezee. Then, realizing her blunder, she issued a rare retraction and told us it was more than that for heaven’s sake (what was I thinking), twice that anyway. Say what you will about Linda Ruffing, she is a team player (just not on your team). In this instance she is making smooth the exit from responsibility and expense by the Koch brothers and their partners California DTSC. Linda wants to help them make a quiet and unobtrusive exit. I hope they hear from the ex mayor.