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Food Trucks Yes, Fiscal Sanity No

The March 11 Fort Bragg City Council meeting was a two-act drama, first about power, then about money.

In Act One, the Council confronted power, specifically their own. 

In Act Two, money confronted them. It is a fair takeaway to say that City Council credibility hit the sidewalk like an egg dropped from a high-rise. In the uber-privileged culture of local political elites, self-examination is almost unknown.

But the people of Fort Bragg are tuned in and invested. In the last election, we had a 70% voter turnout. People are watching. The meeting spoke for itself.

In Act One, the Council violently backpedaled on the massive regulation of food trucks. About five years ago, a freewheeling entrepreneur brought the first known food truck to Fort Bragg. Tsunami Nacho was a nice truck. It had a good product and arrived in our little city as a kind of ambassador of modern American street life. It operated successfully around the region, but in the economic hotspot of Fort Bragg, Tsunami Nacho crashed head-on into the city’s Development Director Marie Jones. Jones must have seen someone getting a nacho and went immediately to work on this hitherto uncontemplated threat to civic order and the economic status quo.

With agonizing tedium over many meetings, Ms. Jones walked the council through the intricacies of prosperity inhibiting policy. Brick-by-brick the council laid down a mishmash of enterprise murdering regulations restrictions and prohibitions.

Two spots off the main drag were finally permitted with carefully delineated hours. Food trucks were allowed under crushing restrictions.

The food truck industry had arrived in Fort Bragg dead on arrival. Tsunami Nacho shrugged and went somewhere else. I am sure he is selling tasty nachos to someone somewhere. In Fort Bragg, regulations stopped the whole industry dead. But the raw opportunity remained. To our city’s immense good fortune in the years since the Tsunami Nacho incident, there has arisen an unanticipated community of wannabe food truck operators and investors.

In the dreary downward spiral of Fort Bragg economic stagnation, their arrival is manna from heaven.

At the council meeting, the new community of food truck hustlers filled half of Town Hall. They weren't asking for a subsidy. I would estimate that the total investment capital present at the March 11 meeting was $1 million or more.

These wild card street smart food truckers actually want to work here. They see opportunity, and all they wanted Monday night was for the city to get out of their way.

Bernie Norvell, always the councilperson most keenly attuned to the people of the city, got wind somehow that a new outfit called Sugar Coated Catering was operating in open defiance of city regulation down by the railroad. Once again, someone was making money and making people happy doing it. Bernie evidently raised the issue at the top secret City Council goal-setting lunch and subsequently squeezed the development director. Monday night food trucks were on the menu.

At the ensuing Council meeting, not only Sugar Coated Catering but half a Town Hall full of incredibly diverse creative entrepreneurs came to clap, cheer, whoop and advocate, repeatedly violating former Mayor Lindy Peters’ iron edict of silence. It was a mad rush for sanity.

Under the irresistible pressure of a packed city hall and obvious common sense, the city council dismantled their food truck regulations almost entirely.

Suddenly a vision arose of a dynamic tourist-friendly city where fun eating and a diverstiy of innovation would jazz up the Fort Bragg street scene.

Why the hell not? What was the point of all this cumbersome pointless regulation of indigenous commerce? In a rare fit of common sense, the Council walked back the suppression of enterprise and opened the future of Fort Bragg to a new kind of stimulating enterprise.

It will do infinitely more for the City's economic vitality than the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in “branding” that the city as squandered in unimaginative groupthink.

The food truckers intend to succeed. Now that they have their chance, I think they will. Fort Bragg is famous for lopsided seasonal prosperity to which mobile operations are well adapted. Watching these vendors kick butt was inspiring. It was arguably the most successful economic innovation in City Council history and it only took half of a meeting and all the Council had to do was get the hell out of the way.

After the prohibited cheering and clapping died down, the council took a break. The vendors went home in triumph.

Act Two: Lust For Free Money

In Act Two, the City Council shook off the embarrassment of repudiated Council overreach and went on to discuss temptation number two, the irresistible lust of power for free money.

The lovely and intelligent Chantell O'Neal, under the benevolent and visibly proud observation of her boss Marie Jones, skillfully split the City Council like a coconut. It was a very rare event; the Council almost always marches in lockstep. Ms. O'Neal was articulate and persistent. Clearly, it was a professional triumph for her. She lured the Council with a pay-for-play grant that will cost the City $700,000 out of the general fund and get them some unspecified percentage of matching funds in the form of two state-of-the-art storm sewer drains. You can't make this stuff up. 

A majority of the Council decided to forget their extensive handwringing panic that Fort Bragg recently lost their last option for the avoidance of official insolvency when the electorate snubbed them on the sales tax measure in November.

Everyone in government agrees privately that Fort Bragg is on the razor-edge of financial insolvency: where Fort Bragg's mandatory CalPers (state pension fund) contribution will come from is no longer clear. Across the state, cities are falling into insolvency like dominos in the CalPers crisis and also to the CVRA (California Voting Rights Act) crisis. Fort Bragg is flat up against the wall of existential financial vulnerability. Everybody, notably Lindy Peters, kept saying with emphasis that the city is headed for the financial cliff. 

At the last Finance & Admin Committee meeting, the City seriously contemplated putting the Chief of Police in a used car. By any measure, $700,000 out of pocket to get a more polished infrastructure is critical mass.

Lindy Peters shrugged off his previously declared financial scruples and bet like a riverboat gambler on the game of grant roulette. We don’t actually need the super sewer collectors right now, but we will need them someday. The central argument was FREE money. The temptation was irresistible. Under Lindy Peters' avuncular advocacy, the Council bet the farm going for, as he put it, “the full monty.” We may well get two new storm drainage devices. They assured us the drains are the best available. Kiss the balanced budget goodbye.

Councilperson Tess Albin-Smith didn’t need any convincing. She said something about a gift horse. Jessica Morsell Haye was right there with her in committing potentially fatal fiscal folly. They went for the cash at the cost of our solvency with a confidence and poise worthy of their new status on the City Council.

Mayor Will Lee and Bernie Norvell sat tight-lipped and prudently voted against it. City Manager Tabatha Miller, officially charged with saving our fiscal skin, must have been quietly freaking.

After that fiscal nuke, there wasn’t much more to the meeting. I personally participated in the anticlimactic petty adjudications of the mid-March meeting by making a vocal public demonstration of my confusion about the location of two offices in City Hall.

Otherwise, it was a damn interesting meeting.

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