Echos and murmurs of the deliberations of government come down to us in bits and pieces. We trust our elected representatives to guard our interests and protect us from the arbitrary abuse of power. We hold the City Council responsible every couple of years. If we are attentive, we know what they decide, but the nuts and bolts of policy are negotiated in offices and conferences very far from public scrutiny, often without input from the City Council, sometimes without their knowledge. The Council votes and we know what their decisions are, but we rarely know the inside story.
We know for example in Fort Bragg that the California DTSC (Department of Toxic Substances Control), that vast and massively funded scientific and regulatory institution, has made the decision after the expenditure of $38 million of GP’s money, to simply fence off the dangerous toxic wetlands on the old mill site. We are offered the comfort that since we will not be allowed to go there, our safety is assured.
The discussions and conferences where they worked out the mill pond decision were complex, extending over many months. The people were handed the outcome. But while they were working that out neither the people nor the City Council were informed even partially of the negotiations between the $800 billion corporate owners, and the many state agencies that participated, and our Development Director. We were never told of the pressures that GP brought to bear or the substance of the compromises that were adopted. We are now assured that a fenced off toxic area in the midst of our town is the best decision. In the aftermath of the announcement, the City Council has expressed no opinion.
Neither the people nor the Council knew what our own Fort Bragg representative Development Director Ms. Marie Jones was doing because she derisively and indignantly refused to provide even general details. No reports were presented, no accounting of the long negotiation was made, either to the public or the City Council. She was a one-man baseball team and insisted that was her right. "We have lots of meetings," she told the Mayor, "I can’t report on all of them."
We know that the City Council passed a resolution almost a year ago to insist on a thorough clean up of the mill site, much in accordance with popular opinion. We know that resolution came to nothing. We do not know why.
In Fort Bragg the petty theater of City Council meetings is not the substance of government. In a culture of transparency, the craven financial irresponsibility of our former City Manager was allowed to metastasize. The impact of Ms. Linda Ruffing’s financial machinations still reverberates through city finances. Its full scope is only gradually coming to light, but it is certain that Ms. Ruffing’s manipulation of finance, was not an isolated abuse of power at City Hall. The Fort Bragg Development Department is at least equally autonomous and arrogantly non-transparent. Behind the scenes dealing continues in the person of Ms. Ruffing's long-term second in command.
Council acquiescence and casual acceptance of decisions made by employees putatively responsible to the Council is the most defining feature of city government in Fort Bragg. In fairness, the members of the City Council are part-timers. They have other full-time jobs. They have not the time and are not paid sufficiently to conduct a stringent intensive oversight. When they provide direction to the Administration the Council treads lightly. They are uncertain, very conscious of their dignity, and terribly afraid to probe or even ask questions of professionals almost always more informed than they are. The imbalance in authority between the professionals at city hall and the City Council is so ingrained that there is an unmistakable undercurrent of contempt by department heads for the elected representatives who are supposed to be their bosses.
Blaming the bureaucrats generally is painting with too broad a brush, the problem is systemic. There are people at City Hall of impeccable responsibility and candor. June Lemos, our recently much-abused City Clerk, is a rare gem of administrative excellence. Our new city manager Tabatha Miller, brought in under emergency conditions to replace Ms. Ruffing, has already demonstrated competence and genuine initiative. But the process of government is firmly in the hands of a system only tangentially responsible to the City Council. The Council checks the boxes that they are given, rubberstamps the determinations that are made for them, and contents itself with rowing in the direction that the current is flowing.
The power in Fort Bragg does not reside in Town Hall, it lives a private life in City Hall. The mill pond clean up has for a moment lifted the curtain.