We often read in news articles that so-and-so couldn't be reached for comment. Well, sometimes a reporter just doesn't try very hard. Sometimes we're even glad when our phone calls aren't returned, truth be told. But I want Journal readers to know how hard we tried to get an interview with our new Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Lee Ulansey, the subject of last week's cover story, "HumCPR Rising." Staff writer Ryan Burns asked more than a dozen times over a period of weeks. I finally offered to help and gave it my best to convince Ulansey in a personal email exchange. The interview could be taped and posted on our website, we suggested. The answer still came back no.
It's tough to do a story on a person who refuses to be interviewed. Tough, but not impossible, as Ryan demonstrated. The article has been praised by many -- even by a friend of Ulansey's -- as being fair, accurate, insightful and connecting a lot of dots.
Ryan listed some questions in his story he would have liked to ask Ulansey, mostly about his personal political organizing (along with O&M Industries owner Rob McBeth) ever since HumCPR was founded in 2007. As Ryan documented, the duo has had a remarkable string of successes, having backed now four of the five members of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and four of the five members of the Eureka City Council.
I had some questions of my own after our email exchange. How does Ulansey reconcile his passionate belief in "transparent government" with the fact that he founded a political action organization that over the last two election cycles helped capture super majorities on the two largest, most influential political bodies in the county? This shadowy group has pretty much zero transparency as a private, for-profit corporation. (Ulansey claims 4,000 members, but I think he's counting those who sign up online for HumCPR newsletters. In that case, the Journal is now a member.) HumCPR has no list of members available (the old one has been removed from its website), no public meetings, a locked office on Fifth Street in Eureka, and currently no executive director. Yet HumCPR, with two active lawsuits against the county, is responsible for pretty much hijacking the General Plan Update (after 11 years of public process, the public is now excluded from the meetings of the ad hoc committee "advising" the county supervisors) and the ouster of former Planning Director Kirk Girard.
And here's another question: Who exactly wrote the checks for Supervisor Estelle Fennell's salary as executive director of HumCPR for three years before she became county supervisor? (Fennell also declined to be interviewed but gave a few comments via email.)
I love advocacy groups. I joined one myself last year called the Bay Trail Advocates (baytrailplan.org). Every member is listed with our contact information on the website. I belong to other, more sophisticated organizations that raise money to fund all kinds of good causes, like Planned Parenthood. They are nonprofits, run by boards of directors who are elected, with financial transparency and accountability. HumCPR's only accountability is to its wealthy donors. How many are there and who are they?
HumCPR may not have 4,000 members but it has spent an enormous amount of money that now influences the daily and weekly politics of Humboldt. Just last week as we were going to press, county supervisors voted (4-1, of course) to appoint former Eureka City Manager David Tyson to the UpState RailConnect Committee instead of the eminently more qualified retired Humboldt County Public Works Director John Murray. (Does the county want a darn smart engineer who has a lifetime of experience in building massive public works projects, or does it want a committed east-west-yes rail advocate who is already representing other overlapping, redundant organizations?)
Perhaps more stunning last week was a decision, in special session on Good Friday, by the Eureka Council members. They did what some of them said they wouldn't do: Voted to use public money to study an east-west rail line. For more than a year we have been told by east-westers, Tyson included, that private money existed to do this study -- and likely to build it because it would be such an attractive and successful business venture. There is no doubt that the feasibility study is a priority of this council, but the council's flip flop (again, 4-1) on using public money should be raising eyebrows. And so should the manner in which the council members did it -- calling an emergency session on Thursday for Good Friday when anyone who might oppose was either at work or out of town for the holiday or just plain unaware that this expense was being considered. (The council voted to use $17,500 in "staff time" to match a grant from the newly minted "Land Bridge Alliance," yet another east-west-yes group. The staff time will be used to apply for a $295,000 grant from Caltrans.)
Eventually these council members and supervisors will have to stand for re-election. When they do, let's be sure to ask them a lot of questions about decisions they are making today, and money and time they are spending. In the meantime, we'll all just have to live with the new political reality.