Politically in Fort Bragg, the proverbial rubber is meeting a hot tar road. The big boxes are coming to Hare Creek. Georgia Pacific is running hard to disengage from the mill site cleanup. The Planning Commission is a continuing public embarrassment, and the Fort Bragg City Council can’t seem to get a grip on any of it.
Still, I foresee at least the possibility of great things for our lovely community. I sat down with Fort Bragg’s new City Manager Tabatha Miller Wednesday afternoon. I was her first half hour after lunch. We met in the conference room. Neither of us was exactly tense, or exactly not. As we settled into a good discussion, it became increasingly clear that Ms. Miller is a good human and likely a fine manager. Fort Bragg has hired a chief executive with polished and comprehensive professional experience. She is easy to talk to, subtle and informed.
Like the statistically impressive unambiguously rejoicing majority, I was deeply relieved that the city administration was purged of its most intractable pernicious influences in the City Manager’s office and renewed along responsible democratic lines. It was the kind of feeling that is best expressed with brass bands, confetti, American flags and parades. But I kept all that to myself of course.
“Do you like it? How are you doing?”
It’s unique, she told me and put so much into that word that I can scarce describe it. She said it with no irony at all, with no pretense that the main thing is not what it is, that community engagement in Fort Bragg is far more contentious, articulate, and directed, than you would find almost anywhere. The issues are urgent and the people of the city are fully engaged. Ms. Miller has hired on to a bumptuous, rollicking civic rodeo. The people are engaged and the problems are stark. Unique.
I sputtered a bit. I don’t want to be dark, I said darkly. I can hardly talk to you without spilling my side of it. But all of us are all so glad you are here, I don’t want to come in and start making gratuitious pointy remarks. We welcome you Tabatha. The city does. We are so glad you are here.
Be blunt, she smiled at me. It’s OK.
I cannot really tell you what I came away with. We talked only of practical things, the LCP, the Georgia-Pacific Dry Shed, Hare Creek… She took no firm position on anything but somehow it was the opposite of that nauseating allusive ambiguity they dish out at the Council. She was objective but informed. She had the accuity and openess with which a competent executive would review a complicated and serious situation. She ducked nothing, resorted not at all to the glib nontransparency of her predecessor. We have hired a good one.
She took breathtaking dead aim at the budget defict that the previous city manager bequeathed to her. She was looking at data and had it at her command. There was no doubt in my mind that she would be fair. Fair. It was all we were really ever asking for. But all of that, as refreshing as it was, was kind of secondary. There was an unspoken context that was more important but less tangable. I understood by the end of the meeting that Tabatha Miller could see the wonder of Fort Bragg. She got the immeasurable value of the place, safety for our kids, the openness, the immaculate little houses and the wonderful gardens. Ms. Miller was not afraid to have a discussion that we have not had with the city manager for almost twenty years. She knew Hare Creek mattered. After almost twenty years of dispassionate cynical contempt for the city’s future in the mill site. Tabatha Miller actually cares.
I walked out of City Hall into the fine spring day reflecting that lo the very next day was the public meeting on Hare Creek, where the City Development Department was going to take a strongly adversarial position against equally strong public sentiment. Thursday at 6:00pm the Development Department would employ their routine distortion and public manipuation. The spin from the city would be stilted and biased. It was a foregone conclusion. They had opened their game and declared their intentions on Hare Creek without apology or wit in the just released Environmental Impact Report. The people of the City were not going for it.
As I jaywalked across Laurel Street downtown, I passed Linda Jupiter. Linda is that polished Superlib and was a loyal adherent of former City Manager Linda Ruffing. Ms. Jupiter does a very great deal, very quietly. She is admired because she does it with astonishing efficiency, piercing wit and admirable economy of expression. Ms. Jupiter is a Fort Bragg fixture. I knew she was girding herself for the Hare Creek showdown on Wednesday evening. “Linda,” I said, “Like the majestic cycle of the solar eclipse we once again find ourselves on the same side.”
She beamed at me for half a second with what seemed like real joy. “We were always on the same side, Rex. We just got there by different ways.”