The news hit Thursday like a thunder clap rippling through the pond of tense city politics. City Manager Linda Ruffing, the absolute power in Fort Bragg municipal affairs, the final dictator and ultimate author of Fort Bragg civic policy, and the absolute controller of every dime of city spending, had “decided to retire.” She made the decision to retire in the same sense that Napoleon retired from Waterloo.
I found out when the Fort Bragg Advocate, Ruffing’s preferred newspaper, put the news on the front page Thursday morning. As the day unrolled, Ruffing went on the air at KZYX as the next safest media available to her.
Reading about the resignation in the Advocate I had to recall that the absence of a critical press in Fort Bragg contributed more to the longevity and power of the city manager’s reign than any other single factor. For many years the Advocate informed the citizens of our city by running Linda’s versions of city affairs. These ‘City Notes.’ This is a channel for power to express itself without interruption.
In times of crisis the Fort Bragg Advocate operates as an effective branch of city hall by adroitly missing as far as humanly possible anything remotely pertaining to controversy which involves the city manager or her policies. That covers a lot of ground. Understandably, city hall thought it only fair to give the Advocate the retirement scoop. As far as I know the mighty AVA, Fort Bragg’s default newspaper, was not notified.
Ruffing spoke to the scanty audience at KZYX where the reporter was glad in the laid back Mendo way to throw softballs to a shaken Ruffing. The new crew of young reporters don’t have enough self confidence to probe, so they miss the humor. And they missed plenty of it. The revulsion factor for local public radio in Fort Bragg is at least partially due to Philo radio’s confidence in the people that we as a city have way lost confidence in. The lack of attention to local dynamics is an overriding reason nobody in Fort Bragg south of Pine listens to them. KZYX was real nice to Ruffing.
The sincere guy from KZYX was courteously supportive to a shaken city manager so rattled by her recent execution to even pretend that the causes for it were not public dissatisfaction. She must have imagined her retirement announcement differently: The elder statesperson a little tired from great exertions and of course deeply satisfied. Instead she blamed irrational forces and human wickedness.
The defrocked administrator expressed sorrowful concern that Fort Bragg would not be able to get along without her. Regretfully, there was no help for it. She will wait quietly behind her giant hedge at her home to say I told you so at a politically opportune moment.
“Loud voices blasting the ears of the city council,” brought her down, she said. The disgraceful treatment of former Police Chief Scott Mayberry she’d orchestrated, and the allegations of improprieties in the Old Coast Hotel deal, had poisoned the water. Ms. Ruffing was the victim of a pernicious incoherence.
It all began as an insult added to injury. The city council, like the rest of the city, had rested on the assurances of the spin machine at city hall that we were not merely solvent but actually uniquely profitable because they were so darned good at getting grants. Under the control of Ruffing’s ongoing operation the city was indeed linked to a life and death dependency on grants, specifically, community block development grants.
We got some grants, but the solvent part turned out to be an exaggeration. Instead, an increasingly jaded city council found itself facing a $400,000 deficit and making a $3 million emergency funds transfer. Kind of ruins your week. Then came the off-hand revelation that the city faced bankruptcy due to a legally mandated CALPERS contribution by 2020. That would be pension payments to county and city workers. If nothing changes they have will have ruined us by 2020.
It did not help the optics that Ruffing’s own salary was exactly half the amount of the current deficit. An unsmiling City Council was forced to transfer $3 million bucks back into the sewer and water fund and out of the money needed for the immediate operation of the city and anything they might plan to do. They were forced to pay you (if you live in Fort Bragg) back the money you paid for your water and that some magical way got transferred into the general fund. The general fund which took the hit, is money basically available to finance whatever policy or program they might come up with.
The new, reform city council is morbidly conscious of a sacred promise to voters to keep the town solvent. Now the council has an empty wallet to do it with .The best ideas floated in council informal discussions involved draconian cuts in personnel. One thing for sure, their options have be significantly proscribed. Even with her canned supporters, Ruffing had had insufficient goodwill to sustain her position.
But it also happens that Ruffing effectively neutered the city council. She left them at the restaurant with no cash to pay the bill and didn’t even give them a hug.
In the immediate wake of the surprise deficit and the $3 million emergency cash transfer, by fortuitous coincidence Ms. Ruffing’s own pay raise came before the council buried where you would expect it to be, in the consent calendar. It is in the consent calendar that pay raises, benefits and gravy are hidden from vulgar public discussion. Sedate and sensible compliance with the golden parachute Ruffing had hoped to sneak by without discussion when cowboy Bernie Norvell pulled her next pay hike off the consent calendar and sent it back to closed session. It was a surprise move that ended up being the snowball that started the avalanche and made Mayor Lindy Peters blink.
When the pay raise went into closed session the doors closed. We don’t know what else they did, but somebody violated the Brown Act in flagrant manner. The leak hit the streets packaged as a sound bite that the city council was undertaking and the leakers were exposing a “coup.” A matter of such cosmic importance was considered more than enough reason to throw the law of California under the town hall bus. That crew was never particular anyway. They all sent emails to each other thus filling (not packing) Town Hall with the familiar old crowd grown brassy in their decades of power monopoly and boldly bluffing. Artifacts from various strata of discredited city councils rejected by the voters went one by one to the microphone followed by their hangers on and Linda Ruffing’s son. It is aspecies of not very subtle political theater we are familiar with in Fort Bragg. Supporters of the City Manager are masters of it. In fact they invented it. But it has worn real thin. They had broken the law in a political maneuver and they acted like it was all ok as long as it was they and not you who are the ones doing it. Will Lee waited till after the break. Lee, originally elected by a constituency openly and firmly against the Status quo run by Ruffing, had nevertheless agreed to pass the deficit budget siding with the Mayor and the ever faithful Dave Turner and deeply distressing the two councilmen who had stood up to a highly questionable, vaguely explained and highly serious financial disclosure. Will Lee had jumped the ship that elected him and he had good reasons. He pointed out that without a budget authorization the city would have to do summersaults to keep operating. He knew the facts were what they were. Whatever had been done in the budget was done and the money was allocated and the general fund was depleted. Putting the operations of the city in jeopardy to make a point was coals to Newcastle. He was not happy and told me privately he would vote to fire her. But he also knew Ruffing had $300k golden parachute in her contract if they did fired her.
The budget passed, but when they went into closed session negotiations were intense. One councilman remarked privately it was like an episode of the Sopranos. When either Turner or Ruffing leaked the meeting , theatrically declaring it to be coup, they demonstrated again their contempt for law. It is behavior widely understood by the community to be routine with this bunch.
It was a similar contempt for the Brown Act which Ruffing and her supporters were previously so proud and not the Old Coast Hotel at all that drove Measue U. This time it was a real visible and irrefutable violation and it stuck in Will Lee’s craw.
Lee, the swing vote that gave Linda her budget, communed with his soul. He has always been ours. He loves his city. He was legitimately outraged over the leaked meeting and the coup spin. He was a fast learner and he was learning a great deal from Linda Ruffing. He appreciated the mentorship, I think. In the budget matter he thought he should keep the city working. But when confronted with the mechanisms of entrenched, self protecting, lying, manipulative power arrogantly flaunting the law and pretending elaborately to be more than the small fraction of the electorate that they are. It was easy to remember what he stood for.
When he swung this time he hit Linda in the butt. No vote was taken, none was needed. Linda could count. Will must have been definite. I am very proud. No golden parachute. Six months on death row.The famous six months that she herself has used to soften the abrasive effect of city halls takeover of the Measure A money and used again in the demolition of the community television station. Linda knows six months on death row diffuses much immediate wrath and happens anyway, she used that six month stay of execution a lot, now she gets to check it out.