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Fort Bragg Notes (Feb. 13, 2019)

The relatively new Fort Bragg City Attorney for our tiny metropolis is Russell Hildebrand of the formidable law firm Jones and Meyers. He now lives in Texas and does his work for the city by remote. 

The location of Hildebrand’s new digs, I was informed somewhat reluctantly, is a suburb of Houston. City Hall declined to be more specific. Russell Hildebrand and his partners in Jones Myer came to us as one of the commitments to more ethical and responsible government that swept into city hall with the advent of new City Manager Tabatha Miller.

Dumping legal ace Sam (Samantha) Zutler of San Francisco, former manager Ms. Ruffing's personal apologist for Ruffing’s flagrant over the top, hyper-loyalty to the discredited Ruffing machine, was one of the first things the new regime did. In the aftermath of years of dodged responsibility, massive cash misallocations, and carefully obscured budget deficits into which our new City Manager fearlessly waded, a reliable City Attorney to was a priority.

The City Council gave the job to Jones and Meyer of far away Fullerton, California. Jones Myer is a major player in the representation of small and medium California cities. Their client list is long. It was said at the time that a local attorney might be closer to the facts on the ground or at least legal advice would be bought locally. But caution was the order of the day. Jones and Myer got the gig and gave us Russell Hildebrand, or gave us to him.

Russell Hildebrand was initially committed to driving over the hill to offer advice — at a nice hourly rate. Certainly, in early days, He attended most meetings and apparently handled our simple municipal affairs quite easily. Steering our little coastal town through petty issues of regulation and the minutia of legal language is not legal rocket science. Lawsuits are uncommon in remote Fort Bragg. If we were famous for anything, it would not be being too troubled by a little malfeasance or misallocation from time to time. The new City Manager was whistle clean. It was a plum gig.

In a few short months, City Manager Tabatha Miller cleaned up the books, put a stop to Mayor Lindy Peters’ hysteria about impending bankruptcy and brought us quickly and efficiently back into the black.

“Russell,” as he was collegially known, seemed to be very much a part of the clean-up. But then we got sued. 

Jacob Patterson shattered our repose and, as he says, our complacency by bringing suit for district-based council seats under the formidable CVRA (California Voting Rights Act, in theory aimed at ethnic electoral balance, which is not either a problem or an issue in racially harmonious Fort Bragg).

All that Tabatha Miller had done to pull us out of our deep fiscal and legal hole was suddenly at risk. Peters at the time was our all-powerful Mayor. He wanted to ignore the CVRA as the scam it is applied to Fort Bragg, and he mocked it. He said he did not ever really believe it, he was adamantly consistent that he never took it seriously, and indicates that he doesn’t take it seriously now.

The mayor had every right to be amazed. 

The CVRA has amazed and dismayed hundreds of cities and city administrators. Then it has ruined them. Jacob Patterson was dissuaded from pursuing his lawsuit. The city bought him off with a paltry 20 thousand bucks. The reason is mysterious and somewhat lovely. Almost poetic really. Jacob likes living here, He loves it. He works for reform, he truly cares about his city. He backed down graciously for relative peanuts, and Peters thought that was normal. 

Under the CVRA Jacob Paterson could have cleaned our financial clock. Hundreds of cities have incurred massive litigation expenses over the CVRA, in many cases for millions of dollars. We missed all that by a fluke. Peters never saw any reason for alarm and was only slightly conscious when the runaway train missed his car. But the city lucked out, but any other attorney on planet earth can still sue us, and will still almost certainly win. 

The weirdness was that Peters, according to Peters, was getting his dope from Russell Hildebrand. Peters talked about the city of Windsor's fight with the CVRA and apparently winning. They lost. The sage advice of legal giant Jones Myers by means of Russell Hildebrand can of course only be known through the leaking sieve of Mayor Peters’ promiscuous public musings, but good old Hildebrand appears to have been the foundation for the ex-Mayor's sanguine intractability on the CVRA. They can't touch this, was the mayoral takeaway. 

Not too many people notice when the bomb doesn't go off, but if Jacob Patterson had gone for the millions Russ Hildebrand would have profited equally. That's an important point. Apparently, all-out war was his suggestion to the mayor in spite of the massive evidence of financial carnage and the total absence of successful opposition. But Hildebrand would have gotten paid. So much for the probity of bigness. City hall made a sober professional judgment, although without undue fanfare that we shall be retaining councilor Hildebrand even though he now lives on the other side of the continent. Maybe it's safer for us that way.

Fort Bragg Quietly Hits The Wall 

Tuesday afternoon at Town Hall, while the city plied its thousand trades and the winter wind blew fiercely over Fort Bragg’s signature 420 acres of desolated Mill site, City Manager Tabatha Miller announced to the Fort Bragg Finance and Administration Committee that our city is flat broke and running on empty. 

In 2019 we will see how our now carefully managed little city plunged $50,000 into the red. Ms. Miller's delicately balanced budget cobbled together in the first months of her administration through personnel and project cuts, a police force reorganization, and a relaxation of the budget guidelines, was quietly declared DOA. A few months after a City Council election notably devoid of serious discussion on the state of our city finances, we have gotten the bad news.

Tuesday afternoon Tabatha Miller laid out of the grim facts for the Finance and Administration Committee  of Lindy Peters, Tess Albin-Smith and an almost empty room. The City Manager asked for direction and set the stage for discussion at the upcoming Council retreat. The failure of the sales tax initiative in the last election by 50 votes pulled the plug on our very temporary municipal solvency.

The Finance and Admin Committee took no vote and made only general recommendations to the City Manager. But in discussion the committee of two split decisive, Victor Damiani, stated somewhat plaintively that the TOT, (Transient Occupancy Tax) now the largest single source of city funds was entirely discretionary and could be legally used by the Council for any purpose, Lindy Peters was clear that he had promised the money would be used solely at the discretion of the Visit Fort Bragg committee. Anticipated revenues from sales taxes from new visitors were not meeting expectations. No wonder since the committee that spends the TOT tax, is still mired in grand and vague conceptions of “branding” (I don’t know what it is either). Tess Albin Smith leaped into the discussion with assurances pointing out that the city could be making big money doing weddings, and possibly concerts and events on the Georgia Pacific owned mill site. No problem.

In the saner sanctums of City Hall, Tabatha Miller has explored every option. A proposal for parking meters in the central district was shot down, the sales tax was defeated. The Fort Bragg police department was reorganized and continues to struggle with mandatory overtime and a reduced force. Cutting costs even to the bone has not been enough.  The announcement Tuesday morning that Fort Bragg was sliding back into red ink was itself a radical departure from ten years of occluded budget deficits, massive cash misallocations and impenetrable “transparency” under the administration of former city manager Linda Ruffing. This time, we are being told, under incorruptible management and careful accounting, at least the cards are on the table.  In a brief reference to the stunning multimillion-dollar illegal cash misallocations from the water enterprise into the discretionary general fund that had been illegally made available to the Ruffing administration in her last years, the new city manager, Ms. Miller, noted that in 2017-18 revenues from the enterprise funds had been docked 1 million bucks. City Hall continues to struggle with an inherited liability from a “bookkeeping error” that sent $3 million into the money available to the subsequently fired city manager and her long compliant lapdog City Council.  The long struggle to keep the financial scandals of the Ruffing administration under the rug ended Tuesday afternoon. That sound of beating wings you hear is chickens coming home to roost.

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