Thanks and No Thanks

| November 22, 2007

If this were any place but here, local reporters would be getting out of bed at 4 a.m. this Friday morning, dragging themselves down to Wal-Mart and waiting in line with the consumers eager to get their hands on cheap X-Mas geegaws. The reporter would examine the minds and wallets of these citizens, and with this evidence she would attempt to scry the state of the United States economy. How many $498 flat-screen televisions were sold, and what does that say about consumers' fears about the subprime mortgage crisis? How quickly did that $128 Garmin pocket GPS navigator sell out? Could that indicate that gas prices are taking their toll on recreational automobile travel? What do digital camera sales tell us about our balance-of-payments deficit and our geopolitical standing vis-à-vis China?

In the newspaper business, there are three universal things to know about the day after Thanksgiving. One: About half the people in the country are down with tryptophan hangovers, leaving them in a lazy mood and filled with warm, inchoate thoughts about family, country, favored sports teams, the inevitability of death. Two: The other half are out on a frenzied shopping spree, battling in the aisles for the biggest bargains of the year. Three: There's absolutely nothing else going on. These three powerful currents combine to give us the post-Thanksgiving story on economic affairs.

Things being what they are, our local contributions to this time-honored genre will have to be set at Target, with a nod toward Old Town. We won't be able to be there, alas. Instead, we'll take a moment to look through the other end of the telescope, casting ourselves forward amongst the digestifs that our colleagues and competitors will offer at the end of the week.

Ladies and gentlemen, what is the state of the Humboldt County economy? We stand before you today and say — the state of the Humboldt County economy is strong. It's the goddamn United States of America we have to worry about, as usual.

First, the positive news. Humboldt State Economics Professor Steve Hackett recently took it upon himself to make his best guess at the size of the local marijuana economy. This heretofore elusive figure has been much in demand of late, and not just from owners of medical marijuana clubs. As everyone knows, the straight world is making plenty of coin off Humboldt County's number one crop — see "Green from Gold in a Gray Area," Nov. 8, for a bit of surface-scratching — and there have been those who have long feared that legalization would come along and screw up everything.

Well, good news from Dr. Hackett. Though he readily admits that there's plenty of room for error, his initial comparison of retail sales with on-the-books disposable income would suggest that there's somewhere around half a billion dollars annually floating around the Humboldt County economy that has no business being here. This would suggest that our governmental price-control teams, busily ripping up plants out in the hills, have been wonderfully effective.

Partly as a result, perhaps, we simply kick ass on almost all other small-town economies in the country. The Policom Corporation, a consultancy based in Florida, ranked us as the 21st-strongest "micropolitan" economic area in the country, out of a list of 576 similarly sized places. The rankings take into account jobs, wages and earnings as well as "negative" factors like rates of welfare and government medical assistance. We've been shooting up the Policom list of late — back in 2004, we ranked 137th.

Now the bad news. Though there's been great growth in the North Coast technology sector lately, providing plenty of great jobs for local folks, there simply isn't as much good news out there for traditional blue-collar workers. Though there's a vibrant and growing light manufacturing scene in Arcata, it doesn't quite replace traditional mainstays like timber and fishing. But such is the story across the U.S.A. We don't control the tides, but we seem to be surfing the waves far better than most.

Elsewhere in this paperyou'll find a story about bigotry in Ferndale, which should serve as a reminder that Humboldt County's great love affair with "small-town living" isn't necessarily without its downsides. Yes, with its razzamatazz theater company and fabulous gingerbread Victorians, Cream City is undoubtedly the queerest town north of Guerneville. On paper, anyway. Psychological repression can present in strange forms, as any competent therapist will tell you.

There's a story behind the story, though, and if the first doesn't disturb you the second might. It involves outgoing Ferndale Police Chief Lonnie Lawson — a person we once took the trouble to admire, but who has since proved himself an embarrassment to the public he purports to serve. His latest escapade is a fitting capper.

Last week, our reporter called Lawson to verify that Ferndale Enterprise editor Caroline Titus had indeed filed a complaint against former Fire Chief Rich Leonardo, alleging that Leonardo had called her on the phone and verbally harassed her over her coverage of the Altschuler affair. This would be information contained in the department's police blotter, and would therefore qualify as public information according to the terms of the California Public Records Act. However, Lawson refused to give the information to our reporter. He would only repeat that he "refused to comment." When told that "comment" was not what we were after, he hung up.

That evening, Leonardo left a phone message and e-mailed us out of the blue, asking to comment on the story we were working on. This puzzled us in an academic sort of way, as there didn't seem to be any immediate way Leonardo would have known we were working on a story. We were happy to call him back. We were less happy when he told us that Chief Lawson had called to give him a heads-up that we were working on a story.

So we learned that Chief Lawson declined to provide basic public information to a newspaper, but that he was eager to call up and warn someone who had allegedly threatened a newspaper editor — the subject of a complaint being handled by his office — that another newspaper was working on a story. So we called Chief Lawson to register our disapproval of this shocking behavior. First he denied having called Leonardo. Then, when asked if he was calling Leonardo a liar, he said that he would neither confirm nor deny that he had called Leonardo — in a phrase, he "refused to comment." Then he said that even if he had called Leonardo, there was nothing wrong with that.

Would he at least provide the simple information we requested in the first place? "The law doesn't say that I have to bow and scrape to you," the Chief retorted. Nevertheless, after conferring with the city attorney, Lawson called back on Monday with the information we were seeking.

Chief Lonnie Lawson is set to retire in the coming weeks. When he was first hired, we ran a small story about a clever piece of policework he had done immediately after taking the job ("Ferndale Chief Finds His Man," Jan. 13, 2005). But a year ago he erased whatever goodwill he had developed with the community by arresting and harassing an innocent father on trumped-up child endangerment charges, when it was clear to everyone that the man was guilty only of failing to "bow and scrape" to Lawson's petty tyranny. A jury cleared the man of all wrongdoing after 10 minutes of deliberation.

The case seems to have been the rule, not the exception. On that note, the man leaves office. And whatever bad press the good people of Ferndale have suffered with this latest incident, the town can at least consider itself blessed that it will soon be rid of the biggest blotch on its reputation, this cruel parody of a public servant.

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