The forced retirement of Linda Ruffing, the long time Fort Bragg City Manager, becomes, at long last a reality at Monday night’s City Council meeting. Tabatha Miller, Administrative Director from Havasu City, Arizona, has been hired to replace her. The meeting begins at 6pm. The regular meeting will be preceded by a 5pm reception in celebration of Ms. Ruffing’s service to the city. I would not miss it.
Ms. Miller has eighteen years of experience in local city government, 12 as department head. She has degrees in both law and accounting. Ms Miller is also a marathon runner and has occasionally vacationed in our fair city. She will be paid $140,000 a year, $25,000 less than our outgoing City Manager. Her contract, like that of her predecessor, is open ended. She will be arriving at our door in a couple of weeks. Scott Schneider, City Hall’s administrative coordinator, will serve as the interim City Manager during the short gap between Linda and Tabatha.
There were six finalists for the position including Ms. Miller. The hiring process was conducted exclusively in closed session. It was the decision of the city council that the controversies surrounding the City Manager and the intense public indignation that led to her fall be conveyed second-hand and privately (gently) to her successor. There was some discussion at the outset of the hiring process of having the applicants meet the people of the city. Didn't happen. It could have been salutary. I wonder if Ms. Miller has any idea what she is walking into.
For almost two decades whether you supported Linda Ruffing or opposed her, there was no doubt who ran the city. Decades of City Councils just watched her roll. Supporters of Ms. Ruffing, and there were many, characterized her as a "strong woman.” They said it with pride, a little smugly, as if Linda had provided a unique antidote to the messiness of small town governance. We were so clever to have found her. Like Mussolini, she had the trains running on time. She only got stronger right up to the bitter end. Gradually strong came to mean something else. Ultimately it destroyed her. Linda Ruffing ascended to preeminence in the aftermath of the closure of the mammoth Georgia Pacific Lumber mill. The abrupt unapologetic closure of the great mill seemed to doom the city. Generations of families had worked so hard, built our excellent little redwood bungalows and our fine schools. We had a brass band, a resolute independence and a contentious if deeply respected, self aware, civic government.
Little Fort Bragg nestled in the shadow of the forest far "over the hill" from relentlessly modernizing California was an island, almost a land apart. In the days of the mill, the city could claim a rare autonomy. When the mill was operating Fort Bragg was not rich, but it was curiously prosperous. On the strength of rough unremitting labor, concentrated in that single employer, the city cultivated a fine decency. Any one who wanted to work, could work at the mill; people knew their neighbors and their children could stay in town after they graduated and work alongside their fathers. Governing ourselves by an elected council was our privilege and our pride. Work at the mill was the substance of our civic identity. Vigorous contention on the city council was routine.
Georgia-Pacific had cut most of the merchantable trees and soon shut the mill. The survival of the city in any recognizable form, seemed improbable. The City Council, arbiter and governor of prosperity, had only the traditions and sensibility of a working town. Take work out of the equation and no conceivable scenario seemed to balance. In the dull panic and unimaginative bumbling of the elected leaders, the City Manager found an opportunity to gradually dominate and finally largely discount the City Council. With a busy disdain for the impractical past, Linda Ruffing explained things to us.
In a "general law" city, which Fort Bragg is, California law establishes the division of power between the City Council and the City Manager. The vision thing belongs to the council, practical application is the responsibility of the City Manager. In the circumstance of a sinking ship, practical application is an unmistakable priority.
And yet when the mill closed the city did not die. Linda Ruffing was given full credit for our survival. The extraordinary coastal beauty and the compact tidy village brought in retirees and others of independent means. New folks bought the millworker houses, very often the larger houses of the managing class. The big houses on the north side became a bastion of new residents who were fine with progress, and in harmony with Ms. Ruffing’s professional modernity. The steady river of state funding on which any small California city depends did not disappear. Ruffing enhanced our civic income with the aggressive pursuit of grants. The old families of working class Fort Bragg were sidelined and largely forgotten. In large part the hard pressed former millworkers stopped voting, stopped paying attention. It was all pretty heady stuff for Linda Ruffing. She worked hard at the grant game and built a firm constituency on the grants the city gained from our economically disadvantaged status. Linda Ruffing loyalists tumbled into the city council aggressively content to let city manager run with the ball. For the better part of two decades once vibrant Fort Bragg city council meetings played to a literally empty town hall. From 2008-2010 no one even ran for the council. Sheepishly they reappointed each other. Ruffing’s council voted without dissension or debate and bragged that they had achieved a utopia so perfect that harmony and congeniality were the signature of their success.
The concentration of power in the office of the City Manager perhaps inevitably wrought its own destruction. Two seismic events shattered the complacency and awoke a voting majority in the city perhaps 40% greater than the grant-purchased Ruffing constituency. Both incidents were flagrant insults to the city. The first was unforgivable. The city never forgave it. I certainly never will.
Scott Mayberry, son of a famous Fort Bragg Chief of Police, drop kicked a superlatively successful career in law enforcement over the hill to come home as the Fort Bragg Chief of Police. He worked harder at the job than anyone before or since. His commitment to the city was passionate. In a tiny city we have officially only two cops on the beat at any one time, occasionally but intermittently there are as many as four. Most chiefs of police do not do car patrols personally. Scott always did. He was forever on the streets of the city. He was a ruthlessly effective manager. He knew the city police had problems. He would work so long and so hard that in the depths of the night his wife would ride shotgun with him just so they could spend a few hours together. Scott Mayberry was and is of a caliber that any city in America would intensely value. We had him. When a madman killed perhaps the most beloved deputy in our history, the wonderful Ricky Del Fiorentino, Scott Mayberry at great risk of his life got the SOB. I have told the story at length elsewhere. Every single person in the city knows it.
Incomprehensibly, incredibly in the wake of the Del Fiorentino tragedy, blood, and heroism, City Manager Linda Ruffing for the sake of personal control and power, and for no other reason, cost us our finest Police Chief. It was vicious, it was inexcusable and it was unnecessary. Not that much was said; no one could believe it; but no one in Fort Bragg ever forgot.
Then in 2014 in a real estate scam that would have shocked the boys at Tammany Hall, Linda Ruffing rammed through a deal for her loyal constituency of supporters, riding the grant based social services gravy train to turn over the famous Old Coast Hotel to scoundrels pretending to help the homeless. It was supposed to be a shelter. Instead it turned out to be the private offices of a well heeled elite of dismally unproductive loafers. The people of the city were given a minimal four day notice from the announcement of the deal to the council vote. The city erupted.
In two subsequent election cycles the people of Fort Bragg unceremoniously rejected Ms. Ruffing and her private City Council. Doug Hammerstrom, Scott Deitz, Meg Courtney, and the rest of them either withdrew from the council or were defeated in election. All of them were and are unelectable in the City of Fort Bragg. The new City Council got themselves elected by one overriding commitment to the voters, get rid of Ruffing. Now they have.
A new Era has begun.