Slideshow: Ferndale Gothic
A retired carnival owner spoke first, followed by the food booth guy, who operates Lighthouse Cone and Coral Reef Smoothies. After him came the horse guy and a member of the Western Fairs Association Hall of Fame. They all made impassioned pleas at the lectern. But none was as emotional as Ken Johnston, the man who runs the Ferris wheel and the bumper cars.
"A lot of you and your kids have rode my rides," he said, addressing the board of the Humboldt County Fair Association. Nineteen of the board's 21 members sat in brown metal folding chairs behind long tables arranged in an "L." The inscrutable board lined two walls inside the Turf Room at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds.
Johnston, standing under banks of fluorescent lights, said he's been coming to the Humboldt County Fair with his family since 1958, making the long drive from Sacramento to Ferndale every August. It's the same drive they made to be here on this Monday evening in January. "One of the reasons we come is the relationship with the [fair] manager. That relationship has never been in doubt here. He's just one of those guys who, you know he has this fair in his heart."
His voice caught in his throat and he paused to gather himself. The crowd of 60-odd people -- this was the best-attended fair board meeting in at least two decades, according to Board President John Burger -- waited patiently. Caroline Titus of the Ferndale Enterprise stood at the back of the room, taking notes. News Channel 3 reporter Kelly May kept her tripod-mounted video camera aimed at Johnston's face, its deep lines framed by iron-gray hair. "Excuse me," he said in a quavering voice. Then he continued:
"When I heard that [the manager's contract] wasn't being renewed I thought, ‘Well, gee, maybe I won't have to go up there.' That's an honest feeling." He took a breath. "To replace Stu I think would be very devastating to the community; he would be very hard to replace."
"Stu" is Stuart Titus, a Ferndale native who's been employed as the Humboldt County Fair's general manager for 22 years. He's also the city's mayor, having won a nail-biter election last November by a whopping five votes -- 252-247. He, too, sat behind the tables, calmly listening to the speakers while positioned in the middle of a board that, three weeks earlier, voted 13-7 to replace him. The "Victorian Village" of Ferndale (pop. 1,372) has been abuzz ever since. Many locals -- not to mention the out-of-town fair workers coming to Titus' defense -- question the wisdom of the move, and the motives behind it.
A man named Lucky Henner (he's the fair hall-of-famer) called Titus "one of the best" fair managers in the state and urged the board to reconsider. Karen Pingitore, president of Ferndale's Chamber of Commerce, said her agency "question[s] releasing an experienced manager without an equivalent professional on tap." And Mike Angelini described Titus as the fair's linchpin. "No Stu Titus, no fair. No horse races. It's over."
The vast majority of speakers urged the board to reconsider, though a few expressed blanket support for the board. Throughout, the Enterprise's reporter-editor-publisher Caroline Titus -- Stuart's wife -- kept scribbling notes for that week's edition. The 134-year-old community newspaper, which she purchased in 1998, has been at the center of the Stuart Titus controversy. Indeed, some suggest it's the source.
That was the implication made at a fair association board meeting last April. According to the official minutes, which some board members tried and failed to keep private, board member Cindy Olsen complained to Stuart Titus that some of her fellow board members "felt threatened" when he used a digital voice recorder during meetings. (Titus explained that he just wanted accurate records.) Second, Olsen went on, some also felt threatened when he reminded the board of its legal obligation to follow the Ralph M. Brown Act, California's open-meetings law. And third -- well, let's just quote the minutes here -- third, Olsen said "that Titus, as co-owner of the Ferndale Enterprise, should ensure that board members not be ‘made to look bad' in any stories which appear in the weekly publication."
As examples she cited the paper's coverage of a July 2009 incident in which board member and Ferndale's then-mayor Jeff Farley was arrested in Eureka for driving a milk truck while intoxicated, without a commercial driver's license, and with his granddaughter seated beside him. (Farley eventually pleaded guilty to a "wet reckless" charge.)
Olsen also cited the paper's coverage of a 15-5 vote last February that gave Stuart Titus a one-year contract extension. She said the paper should not have identified the way each member voted. (She was one of the five voting against.) Olsen went on to ask whether Titus understood that these concerns "could impact his future employment with the association," according to the minutes.
Titus protested that as a silent partner he has no influence over what gets printed in the paper. Whether or not that's the case, his wife Caroline does have that influence. In fact, the paper is practically a one-woman operation. And her coverage of the fair board scandal -- along with the political cartoons of Ferndale artist Jack Mays -- has been withering. Her stories have doggedly chronicled the board's every Brown Act violation; she has analyzed the agency's finances, policies and procedures, including the incestuous process for selecting new members; and she has demanded access to public meetings and records.
The scrutiny has gotten so intense -- or perhaps annoying -- that at a recent meeting Olsen hid her face behind a piece of paper to avoid Caroline Titus' camera. (Olsen also seems to be hiding from the Journal. After asking that we call her before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m., calls during those hours have not been returned.)
But none of Caroline Titus' muckraking, nor the praises of her husband's peers, managed to save his job. At the end of the Jan. 28 meeting the board went into closed session, where members voted 11-8 to reject Stuart Titus' last-ditch contract offer. His 22-year tenure as general manager expires Thursday.
Two days after the meeting, Board President John Burger went on KSLG and told deejay John Matthews that there's no need to worry about the fair: "You've got the total commitment of the 21 members of the fair board that they're going to work like hell to keep things going in the right direction." He resigned five days later, followed the next day by Vice President Don Becker. Burger told the Journal last week that he wanted to spend more time with his friends and family. Calls to Becker were not returned.
The remaining board members were scheduled to meet in closed session Monday to discuss the salary range and benefits for an interim general manager. If they were hoping that Caroline Titus would ease off with the departure of her husband, last week's Enterprise dashed those hopes. In a page one news story she pointed out that this agenda item constitutes yet another Brown Act violation: Salary decisions for public employees can't be made behind closed doors.
Now the Humboldt County Grand Jury has begun asking questions. The board's new president, Tim Renner, and its second vice president, Jeff Farley, were served subpoenas last Thursday. More on that later.
Of greater concern for residents of Ferndale, along with the rest of the county, is what effect all this will have on the Humboldt County Fair. It's difficult to overstate the importance of the 117-year-old annual event for residents of this picturesque town, whose whimsical Victorian buildings are surrounded by miles of verdant farmland. In recent years the fair has faced serious challenges, including the evaporation of state funding and inter-fair horseracing negotiations so cutthroat they resemble rugby scrums. If Stuart Titus is anywhere near as important as his colleagues elsewhere in the state say, there could be trouble ahead for the Humboldt County Fair.
It's a sunny Monday morning in Ferndale, and Caroline Titus is already annoyed. The school board hasn't emailed her its latest meeting agenda, even though she has a standing request. It's past due and she's frustrated, but not surprised. She deals with this type of hassle all the time, she says.
"It's really, to me, fascinating the disregard for normal rules and public law that just seems to thrive here. And there are no consequences -- or they don't come for a very long time. It's amazing."
She's sitting in a tall director's chair -- a gift from Hollywood director Frank Darabont and the rest of the crew from The Majestic, the 2001 Jim Carrey movie that was filmed here -- and she's starting to assemble the week's paper on her 27-inch iMac. The Enterprise office occupies a small room at the front of a quaint house downtown. On the wall behind her there's a painting that her husband bought her at last year's Humboldt County Fair. It's a portrait of a woman whose mouth is covered with tape that reads, "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
Born in England, Caroline Slark moved with her parents to Hollywood at age 10. She wrote her first letter to the editor of the San Fernando Valley News just six year later, protesting development on a field where she used to ride her horse after school, according to a June 2011 profile on The Huffington Post.
After working on student newspapers in high school and college, she went on to graduate from Sacramento State University in 1985 with a government/journalism major. She met Stuart Titus soon thereafter, and she says the first time he took her to see his hometown of Ferndale her response was, "‘Hey, cute town, but I could never live here.'" She thought it was too small, and besides, by that time she had a thriving journalism career in radio and television at the state capital.
But when both of her parents died of cancer within 15 months of each other, she reconsidered. She and Stuart had just had a baby, and Stuart had been offered his dream job: general manager of his hometown fair.
While raising their three kids, Caroline Titus kept her hand in journalism, working at the Times-Standard for a while and freelancing for the Enterprise. She gradually took on a more active role and became the Enterprise's managing editor in 1995. When then-owner Peter Hannaford decided to sell the struggling paper in 1998, Caroline jumped at the opportunity.
"I knew I could do a better job keeping it going financially ... and I knew how important it was to the community."
When the Journal profiled Caroline Titus 14 years ago, she was already ruffling feathers. Some local businesses stopped advertising over a series of stories that called for municipal review of a local logging project. She also took heat for covering the trial of Ferndale "native son" Stan Dixon, a county supervisor who'd been charged with petty theft.
Back then the Enterprise had 3½ employees, but the business has changed a lot. Caroline Titus no longer needs a layout person to cut and assemble copy on the page, paste-up style, because she does it all with computer software. Nor does she need anyone to physically pick up ads, drop off galleys or get film developed; that's all done digitally, too. And she doesn't need an office manager to do the books because she now uses QuickBooks software.
Caroline Titus even delivers many of the 1,500 copies published each week (with help from cartoonist Jack Mays). She won't divulge annual revenues, but she says the paper is "holding steady." In fact, she said that her refusal to pull punches on controversial stories has earned the paper a wider readership and more loyalty from advertisers.
While daily newspapers across the country are hemorrhaging money and losing readership to free news online, weekly community newspapers like the Enterprise have fared better. Caroline Titus steadfastly refuses to put most stories online (though she occasionally makes exceptions for "bigger stories"). Each issue, available at local markets and newsstands, costs a dollar, and there's no discount for subscriptions, which at $55 per year make up about 20 percent to 30 percent of her revenues, she estimates.
In the 15 years since she bought the paper it has racked up 30 state and national awards. And her reporting continues to spark firestorms.
It doesn't hurt that, from a reporter's perspective, the little town of Ferndale is the gift that keeps on giving. Let's recap just a few highlights: In 2007 a case of gay panic broke out when city officials briefly tried to prevent a psychotherapist named Stuart Altschuler, who happens to be gay, from obtaining a permit to run a business from his home.
Two years later came the Humboldt Creamery fiasco, in which longtime CEO Rich Ghilarducci abruptly resigned and fled town, admitting in a note he left behind that the cooperative's books had been cooked. The creamery went bankrupt and was sold at auction to Foster Farms Dairy, while Ghilarducci was ordered to repay $7 million and spend 30 months in federal prison. (Caroline Titus continues to cover an ongoing civil suit related to the debacle.)
When people ask whether she can objectively report on matters related to her husband (a question that's come up a lot lately) she brings up the orgy in the Red Barn. In 2006, a Eureka-based group rented the fairgrounds building, ostensibly for a tea party (of the well-heeled British variety). Instead they threw a sex party, and Caroline Titus ran a front-page story about it over her husband's initial objections.
Still, there's a potentially awkward, some might say inappropriate dynamic at play when the woman running a small-town newspaper is married to a man in power in the same town. In addition to Stuart Titus' 22 years as fair manager, he also served as mayor once before, from 1994-1996, and he just finished eight years on the City Council. The Tituses have been accused of abusing the privileges afforded by their relationship.
In 2007, one of Stuart Titus' fellow councilmen, Carlos Benemann, accused him of revealing closed-session information to his wife. Stuart's response, according to his wife, was along the lines of "Go fuck yourself." Benemann in turn filed a restraining order against the Tituses, along with any associates of the Enterprise, saying he was afraid for his safety. The Tituses took him to court, alleging that the restraining order amounted to a strategic lawsuit against public participation (or SLAPP) case. In other words, they argued that Benemann was trying to use the court system to shut them up. They won the case, in part by proving that the information in question had already been made public. Benemann was ordered to pay the Tituses' legal fees -- about $12,000.
Caroline Titus admits that covering stories that involve her husband is like walking a tightrope, "but I think I walk it pretty well." She said that the community can easily hold her accountable. "If anyone wants to check me, on anything, they can find me in two seconds. I am rarely checked on the facts of my reporting."
The complaints are usually vague. A recent scandal erupted when Ferndale football fans were accused, multiple times, of hurling racist taunts at opposing teams. This depressing storyline reached its nadir with a formal complaint filed after last year's season opener. A player from visiting McClymonds High alleged that a Ferndale fan had shouted at him, "Get up, you fucking nigger, and get your nigger ass back to Oakland." After an inquiry from the North Coast Section of the state's Interscholastic Federation, Ferndale High's football program was placed on probation for this season.
Caroline Titus' coverage was critical of the way Ferndale High School Principal/Superintendent Jack Lakin handled the incidents. He reportedly denied the accusations of one visiting team before eventually apologizing to the opposing school, and Caroline reported that he misrepresented facts in a KSLG radio interview.
Lakin said that Caroline Titus' stories tend to be unnecessarily divisive. He pointed to her coverage of a move he made last year to ban everyone except coaches, players and student support personnel from Ferndale's sideline at football games. On Twitter and in the Enterprise, Caroline decried the move as a "media ban." Lakin considers that a negative slant to a good-faith effort at controlling the situation, and he said Titus has a tendency toward sensationalism.
"She seems to present things in a way to antagonize one group and support another." Ultimately, he said, the problem is that Caroline Titus "fails to recognize the best intentions of people."
Titus contends that she was just reporting the facts, and in regard to recognizing good intentions, she said the Enterprise has written "dozens of stories" on the high school's successes and will continue to do so. She also said she's offered Lakin space in the paper for a regular, unedited column.
One of the paper's longtime columnists is 69-year-old Wendy Lestina, whose aunt and uncle owned and operated the Enterprise for more than 50 years -- from 1933 to 1984. In those days the paper was filled with benign gossip like wedding details and news of visiting relatives, Lestina said. That was appropriate for the time. But now the times call for real journalism, and not everyone appreciates it. Lestina doesn't put much stock in complaints that Caroline Titus is biased.
"They never say she has lied, misquoted them or fictionalized the account of an event, because she never strays from what happens," Lestina said. But that doesn't necessarily mean people like it. "None of us look good if our story is objectively presented to the public," she added with a chuckle. "Ferndale people are not used to that because they never had a real journalist before."
While Caroline Titus may be considered a newcomer by Ferndale standards, her husband Stuart's family has roots that go back 150 years. His ancestors came to the region in the 1860s, homesteading on Petrolia property that remains in the family.
When he was a kid, Stuart's family lived just outside of town on Centerville Road. A childhood he remembers as fun and carefree was interrupted one August evening when he was riding his bike and a westbound driver slammed into him at close to 50 miles per hour. The accident fractured his skull and broke his neck. Just 10 years old, he was in a coma for two weeks and his path to recovery was difficult. But he went on to play multiple sports at Ferndale High -- football, basketball, baseball and track.
"The beauty of going to Ferndale is that if you can put your pads and helmet on the right way you can play whatever you want," Stuart Titus joked. He played football at College of the Redwoods, too, before going on to earn a business degree from Sacramento State University. He met Caroline while working on a two-summer internship with the state Food and Ag Department's Division of Fairs and Expositions. His job was to audit food vendors at county fairs, and Caroline signed on for a summer job to help tally the products being sold. As she puts it, they met "clicking corndogs and beers."
Stuart went on to a management training program, and when Humboldt County's fair manager position opened up he jumped at the opportunity. Now, at age 58, he has lost his dream job, along with an $80,000 salary and $30,000 worth of benefits per year. (He earned less last year because he volunteered to take a one-time $10,000 pay cut to help compensate the fair association for drops in state funding.)
Yet he's still grateful. "It's been a great career," he said. "It's a great program to be a part of where you can bring happiness to people's lives once every summer. And this one in particular has always maintained a lot of charm."
One of the things that makes the Humboldt County Fair special is the passion and excitement that still surround horseracing. Fans pack the grandstands to wager on mules and ponies. Elsewhere, the horseracing industry has struggled and lost vitality. Morose gamblers now watch televised simulcast feeds in fairground annexes or use "advanced deposit wagering" to bet from home.
"Fewer and fewer people kept coming to the racetrack," said Kirk Breed, executive director of the California Horse Racing Board. In Breed's profile picture on the board's website, he's a rosy-cheeked old cowboy in a pink shirt and shiny bolo tie, offering a jovial tip of his cowboy hat. He recently spoke to the Journal from his office in Sacramento, and he said this area has managed to hold on to horseracing's glory days. "Humboldt County has a higher average of patrons per horse race than any place in California," he said. "It's the old style of racing."
Even with strong attendance, though, it hasn't been easy to keep our race dates. The Humboldt County Fair has faced stiff competition from major players such as Golden Gate Fields and Bay Meadows, and in recent years other county fairs in the state have joined the tug-of-war. "All of the fairs have banded together ... trying to get those dates [and] put Humboldt County out of business," Breed said.
The reason for this fierce competition is Del Mar, the famous and lucrative racetrack in Southern California. Thanks to simulcasting, bets on the Del Mar races are placed all over the state, and regulations dictate that proceeds from all the action in "the north" -- meaning everywhere above the Tehachapi Mountains near Bakersfield -- goes to the venue that's hosting its own races that week.
That revenue is the difference between making money and losing money for the Humboldt County Fair, Breed said. And even as the industry gravitates toward SoCal, Breed and others on the state horse racing board have rooted for us. "We have ESPN up there every year; we have national publicity ... and it's fun! You go to these other places and it's not fun. I mean, they can have dollar beer, dollar this, dollar that, give away a T-shirt and everything else and you still don't have fun."
Breed credits just one person with keeping the competitors at bay. "Had it not been for Stuart Titus over the last three or four years ... if he hadn't stood, by himself, for Humboldt County, you would have lost those dates a long time ago."
Stuart went to Sacramento each year to lobby the board, managing to build a coalition of allies by highlighting the old-fashioned nature of Humboldt County horseracing. He also talked about the fair's importance to the local community, a case that was bolstered last year by a fundraising effort from a new nonprofit called Friends of the Fair. It was established by none other than Caroline Titus, along with Karen Pingitore of the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce. The Enterprise donated more than $9,000 worth of advertising for last August's Fair Bash, a fundraising event that brought in $45,000.
When Breed found out that the fair board was ousting Stuart Titus, he was stunned. He doesn't think very highly of fair boards generally, but he said Humboldt County's takes the cake. "I've never seen such a shortsighted group of people run a fair in my life. I mean this is just a real groundbreaker."
Breed is skeptical that the board can find a replacement who can match Stuart Titus' education, training, negotiating skills and personal connections. "Maybe they've got some secret weapon up there in Humboldt County that I don't know about who's gonna come in there and tell us all how to do it right," he said with a chuckle, "but I don't know who that person is."
The fair board's new president, Tim Renner, disagrees. He says that, moving forward, the fair is going to be just fine. And while he wouldn't address his reasons for voting against Stuart Titus, he said the local paper has it all wrong.
"The Enterprise hasn't covered a single thing that had to do with his contract not being renewed," he said last week. "Absolutely nothing."
Jeff Farley, who also voted against renewing Titus' contract, denied that his decision had anything to do with Caroline Titus' coverage of his 2009 DUI arrest. Both men said the matter was a confidential personnel issue.
Jerry Bruga, a friend of Farley's and a retired resident of Ferndale, said the reason is simple. "It's just [Stuart's] failure to get along with his employer, which was the fair board. And that happens throughout the world, doesn't it? ... He wouldn't be a team player."
"Well," countered Stuart Titus, "if agreeing to be a team player meant being as corrupt as some of them are, I would have been a team player. But that's just not how I'm made."
Caroline Titus recently reported that fair board members drink alcohol during closed sessions. When we asked Renner if alcohol has been consumed in closed session he grunted and sighed. "I can't say never, but I really can't say that it has, so I really don't have a comment on that." Asked if the alcohol was paid for with county funds he said, "You know, I've never seen how the checks are written for that, whether it comes from stuff that's left over from the fair bars ... ." If so, it was paid for with public funds.
"I think that they are having a very difficult time comprehending that they are a public agency and are accountable to the public," Caroline Titus said.
Stuart Titus believes his dismissal was nothing more than petty retaliation for his attempts -- and Caroline's -- to hold board members accountable. The board stated in a public meeting that he'd satisfied all of his goals and objectives for last year. "It's pretty clear they don't have a valid reason," he said. "They're not in financial trouble; we're not in regulatory oversight problems. There is nothing they could point to that has any relevance whatsoever."
Another Ferndale resident says he's had a taste of the board's retaliation, too. Richard Hooley, who moved to town in 1999, read in the Enterprise about Cindy Olsen wanting Stuart to control coverage in the paper. Hooley responded with a letter to the board, which he delivered at a subsequent meeting. He defended freedom of the press and called for Olsen's resignation.
A week and a half later, a fair board member named Duane Martin filed a complaint with City Hall about a fence in Hooley's backyard. It had been there for a decade without a problem, but according to old maps it was technically built across a city street. "It was just a weed-strewn, berry-strewn patch," Hooley said.
Ferndale City Manager Jay Parrish confirmed that Martin complained about the fence, as did another unnamed resident the same week. Parrish acknowledged that the so-called street is not in use and may never be in use by the city. But the law's the law. "My hands were tied as far as dealing with the situation."
Martin did not return phone calls.
Hooley tore down his fence. He's convinced that Martin and his pals acted out of revenge, and he thinks they did the same to Stuart Titus. "For a long while, I think, the board just kind of acted like a good old boys club," Hooley said. "They held meetings and got things done and probably didn't care one way or the other whether they followed the Brown Act. But Stu was trying to get them to work their meetings in a professional manner. ... They resented that terribly."
Stuart Titus said that he's concerned about the future of the fair. "My greatest fear, not just with the horseracing component but with the overall breadth of it, is that the current board of directors don't know what they don't know," he said. "It's going to be a very steep learning curve on a number of different fronts."
Meanwhile, the board must deal with scrutiny from the grand jury. On Monday of last week we asked Renner if he's concerned about the inquiry. "Not at all," he said curtly. "Most of us have talked to our attorneys and our attorneys have said you don't have to [respond] unless you're subpoenaed."
On Thursday, Renner was served with a subpoena at the fair board's office. Farley was also served, according to the Times-Standard. Both men declined to comment.
As for the Enterprise, Caroline Titus is tentatively planning to expand its coverage and distribution this fall to cover the entire Eel River Valley, including Fortuna, Scotia and Rio Dell. And she's planning to bring on a new worker to help with ad sales, delivery and maybe even coverage of the fair board -- her husband, Stuart Titus.