I showed up Friday afternoon at the Hostility Center (Old Coast Hotel) down on Franklin Street looking for a story. I wanted to ask what Hospitality Center knew about this year's Emergency Winter Shelter. The Shelter in Fort Bragg under changing management and precarious funding for has always provided a roof for the unsheltered in a weekly rotation of churches. It is a community action that brings folks that are living outside, inside when it rains and storms. In our climate, it is impossible humanly to do anything else.
For many months neither the community nor the homeless have known if there would be a Winter Shelter. Rumors had been out there for months that there would not be one, but there might be. Everybody was uncertain but hopeful. Conflicting information abounded. It's no joke being out in woods. I knew HH had very recently received a grant from the county and I wanted to get the facts. I thought naively they would want me to know. The Winter Emergency Shelter is a matter of interest to the general public and vital to the homeless
By the grace of the gods that watch over inquiring reporters there happened to be a meeting going on at that very moment in the elegant conference room of the Old Coast Hotel. Lo, it was a veritable ingathering of the social services elite. They were talking about the Winter Shelter. Great. The lovely receptionist asked me if I was there for the meeting. I said that I was indeed, so she led me into the meeting. I sat down quietly in the corner and opened my laptop. The attendees freaked. Very quietly. The winsome Anna Shaw Hostility House Supreme Commander immediately left her seat and whispered in my ear that if I remained the cops would be on the way. I departed meekly.
I had not prepared my reaction. When they bounced me, I felt I had caused the fuss but the hostility of the reaction still caught me off guard. My detractors insinuate that I am threating. Geeze. It is such a dire charge to level against such a chicken. What can you do? At the Old Coast Hotel on Thursday afternoon primordial instinctual courtesy kicked in before I really considered the meaning of my capitulation.
The meeting was not disturbed. Bernie Norvell and Will Lee of the City Council were there as the City Council/Hospitality House ad hoc committee. Chris Strickland of the Coast Christen Center the newest member of the Hostility House Board of directors was in attendance. Joan Katzeff from the Caspar synagogue was present. Charles Bush of the Senior Center as well as a group of nameless plotters I presume from the Hostility House board.
As they hustled me out the door I reflected on the conduct of public business behind the veil of secrecy. It was the second time that day I had been stopped at a door. Earlier in the day, I was barred from a health and resources meeting at Town Hall. I did not think that much of it at the time or now. I wasn't going around looking for places to be kicked out of. I was just snooping. I hope politely.
But have we not also noticed the Closed Session City Council meetings have become very numerous. These days it is in closed session where the council makes their tough decisions and actually hack out policy. Our local powers are very polite to me generally but keeping me out of meetings fills them with joy.
As I sat disconsolately at my office in Starbucks I considered the day. The internet has made us hungry. If it's out there, people don't just want to see it, they expect to. I understand corporate or organizational privacy. But I know better the value of public disclosure. A meeting ostensibly to make decisions affecting the public, or to broaden the dialogue has a significance that deserves different protections than a simple in-company meeting.
A meeting is both a public ceremony and by the spirit of the Brown Act a public right. The norm is that the powerful in government conduct carefully prepared public business in front of people to pretend that they are making decisions openly. It is already phony. When the pretense of public participation goes dark the government process is one fatal step phonier. An honest purpose and clear intention do not need to be top secret to be effective.
I know some things and I have many questions.
I know that the county has funded Anna Shaw to direct the winter emergency shelter program to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars. No one knows but those that were at the secret meeting, exactly how they will use that money. The heavily redacted proposal for funding the winter shelter submitted by the shelter describes proposed unexplained expenditures . A forty-six thousand dollar charge has been made to the county for "a building" of undescribed purpose or location. Really? I thought that the churches were providing the shelter on a rotation basis. Enlighten me. Let me in.
The fact is I know that the Churches of Fort Bragg will provide the actual shelter. Staff will be paid (I think) by Hospitality Center and bag lunches (it is rumored) are planned. We are at least certain that the county grant gives Hospitality House all the money and wide discretion in spending it. What a surprise. I'm not saying they will do anything wrong with the money, necessarily. I am just saying they have a record of misappropriation and public theft. I am noting mildly that they cling to secrecy and are grossly arrogant.
You would think that they would want to clear things up. You might imagine that the city ad hoc committee would demand openness. I was told at the Mayor's Monday morning meeting by an administrative affiliate at HH that forbearing to inconvenience their already fed up neighbors will not let people gather at the hospitality house for transport elsewhere. Anna or some thinker or planner was proposing that the homeless gather instead at Bainbridge park. It was suggested the nice new iron fence they have recently installed could be used to keep the homeless in while they gather for the night. This is the fence they put in to keep them out. And no van? None at any rate promised. They suggest that the homeless walk to whichever church was available. It would be like the trail of tears. Since it is winter the rain will conceal the crying.
I know that the Hostility House administration has eliminated breakfasts at the shelter, no one knows the story on dinners. The shelter is limited by the terms of their agreement with City Hall to provide a maximum of 20 thousand meals a year. I hear that feeding the residents social workers at Hostility House will consume 18 thousand meals a year. Speculation has been that therefore dinners will be provided only to the residents of the house. Previously they would feed any hungry soul. At this writing, I can verify none of it.
The meeting Thursday at the Old Coast was held to settle the mysteries and set definite policy. I would really have liked to be there. Don't give me agendas and minutes. It is the tradition of the free press to make it their business to actually see them lie. It provides vital nuance and context. I walked down the sidewalk with my head held low. Later in my office at Starbucks I ordered a coffee and read again the noble preamble of the Brown Act:
The (California) Legislature finds and declares that public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.
The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies (or councilmen) which serve them. The people in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
In the morning meeting at Town Hall, the agencies in attendance were all state agencies. The exclusion of the press was harmless but ridiculous. It makes them look even sneakier than they are. It helps no one and benefits no one, least of all the conspirators. Is it in the genes?
Hostility house, however, is a not just a not for profit corporation. It is not a state agency but it is funded by the county and public, and the extreme winter shelter is mostly funded by a county contract. They are not part of the city, but they are entrusted by the city to fulfill a legally mandated public purpose to take care of the vulnerable and the indigent. They are closely linked with mandated state law. HH denies that the public has any right to information. They kept me out as an obvious and established principle. In the recent agreement between the city and the shelter, openness and cooperation were demanded and promised. In the protracted fight with the people of the city Hostility House suffered nothing, was asked to do nothing important and conceded very little. The only real consequence of being deluged with an ocean of community and city complaints was that they were forced to open previously secret board meetings to the public. This was not a board meeting so they barred the door.
So far HH board meetings have been very amusing. They kick people out. The long-serving board grimly endures unwanted intruders asking unwanted questions. Afterwards, they go immediately into closed session. They do it at every meeting. It's a Marx Brothers goof.
Members of the Fort Bragg City Council Bernie Norvell and Will Lee were present at their meeting as members of the ad hoc committee charged with reigning in HH and ensuring compliance with the city agreement. I would assume that neither of them would have a problem having the press report the meeting. It is Anna Shaw who kicked me out. It is Anna Shaw who stands to directly benefit by apparently intentional ambiguities. The ad hoc committee knows but is apparently pretending that they do not, that HH has a track record of burning city money. An example would be the Giving Garden project. The ad hoc committee knows very well the need for careful oversight with this outfit. Maybe Will and Bernie had something to say. We don't know. I am very sure that they will not push for responsible management with the same vigor as if the public was privileged to watch. It's human nature. The press should not be excluded from any meeting where it is possible to include them. It matters and they know it matters.