PlanCo Chair Worked at Controversial Project Site, Raising Questions of Bias


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Humboldt County Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio did some concrete work on the construction of local developer Travis Schneider’s family home, which Bongio failed to disclose publicly during two commission meetings concerning permit violations associated with the increasingly controversial project.

The revelation comes as Bongio reportedly plans to resign as chair of the commission at tomorrow’s meeting at the unanimous request of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, and as the commission is set to discuss a letter of apology to three Wiyot area tribes stemming from Bongio’s conduct during an Aug. 18 hearing on Schneider’s permits.

Leading the Journal on a tour Monday of the still-under-construction home — which has been subject to a county stop work order since late December — Schneider was asked about his relationship with Bongio. He said the two have known each other a “long time,” having both grown up locally. Asked specifically if they are related, Schneider than said yes, that Bongio's sister is his wife’s aunt by marriage, but said they don’t spend holidays together or gather for family functions.

Following up on a tip, the Journal then asked if Bongio or his construction company — Alan Bongio Construction — had done any concrete work on the project. Schneider indicated Bongio had, saying he spent one day there in 2019 doing concrete work on a covered patio after another contractor fell through. Asked if Bongio had been paid for the work, Schneider said he didn’t recall but after checking with his office said Bongio’s work was unpaid.

When the issue of Schneider’s permits first came before the Planning Commission on Aug. 18, Schneider disclosed several ex-parte communications — conversations or fact finding efforts that took place outside the public proceedings.

“I have went to the site multiple times, I have had multiple conversations with the land owner about it, I’ve also spoke with a number of tribes, not the ones we’re talking about here but other tribes,” Bongio said, never specifying that Schneider was a relative or that he’d spent a day working pro bono on the project.

Bongio did not respond to a voicemail and email inquiring why he did not make the disclosures, though he felt it necessary to say he’d been to the site and spoken to the applicant.

California conflict of interest laws only address situations in which an official stands to benefit financially from a decision, and the county has no code of conduct or policies governing the behavior of planning commissioners (though it will soon consider one), so there are few hard rules in place governing such situations. But the California Association of Counties leans on materials prepared by the Institute for Local Government to help local officials navigate potential biases that could be problematic.

One such primer, titled “Understanding the Basics of Public Service Ethics Laws,” notes that personal relationships can bias someone’s decision making when they have a “strong animosity” toward an applicant or a “strong personal loyalty” to them. And all biases are particularly noteworthy, the report states, when it comes to quasi-judicial commissions — or those that act as independent arbitrators — like the Planning Commission — that are tasked with sifting through evidence and interpreting codes and policies.

“When an official sits in a quasi-judicial capacity, that official’s personal interest or involvement, either in a decision’s outcome or with any participants, can create a risk that the agency’s decision will be set aside by a court if the decision is challenged,” the Institute for Local Government’s report states, warning that decisions “tainted by bias” may be discredited or even overturned.

The document advises officials to view the law and rules as minimum standards, as it’s not practical to write rules and laws to “prevent all actions that might diminish the public’s trust.”

"For this reason, the laws should be viewed as a floor for conduct, not a ceiling. Just because a given course of conduct is legal does not mean that it is ethical (or that the public will perceive it as such),” the report states, urging officials to ask themselves whether they’d like to see a given course of conduct “reported on the front page of the local newspaper” to help them determine what the public perception might be.

Long before the latest revelations, controversy has swirled around Bongio’s handling of the Schneider permitting matter.

Travis Schneider's family home has sat partially built under a county stop work order since early this year. - SUBMITTED
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  • Travis Schneider's family home has sat partially built under a county stop work order since early this year.

At the Aug. 18 meeting — at which the Planning Commission was to consider permit modifications and a new permit Schneider needed to lift the stop work order that had been issued after he was found to have constructed his home on a footprint different than what was on approved plans, encroaching on an environmentally sensitive wetland, graded a road without a permit, bulldozed sensitive habitat and potentially disturbed a culturally sensitive Wiyot archeological site — Bongio first raised eyebrows by adjusting the agenda order without explanation to have Schneider’s project heard before a permit amendment for Friends of the Dunes trail and Habitat restoration work that had been pending for years. Then, when staff reported that two tribes — the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria — opposed the commission moving forward with the permits until mitigation measures and restoration plans could be further ironed out, Bongio accused them of acting in bad faith, playing a “game” with cultural resources to extract more concessions out of a developer and reneging on a deal, though Bongio said he had “another term for it, but whatever." Throughout his remarks, Bongio used the term “the Indians” in reference to multiple local tribes, which tribal officials and others found deeply offensive.

Bongio also repeatedly made references to Schneider having done everything asked of him, appearing to ignore the numerous initial permit violations or the fact that he continued construction for 50 days after receiving the county's initial stop-work order.

When the commission reconvened Sept. 1, Commissioner Noah Levy said he was offended by Bongio’s handling of the matter.

“I was upset not just by the language … or his treatment of (the tribes) in particular, but by the overall biased handling of the matter that I felt infected that item from the start,” he said. “It betrayed, I felt, our role that we need to strive for to be a neutral and fair and unbiased body when these stakeholders come before us.”

When the subject of the square footage of Schneider’s family home came up at that meeting as a focus of concern for the California Coastal Commission — which has appeal jurisdiction over the project due to the wetland encroachment — Bongio also made comments that seem to have been out of step with the reality of the situation.

Bongio estimated that other homes in the neighborhood were in the “4,000-to-6,000” square foot range, saying he was “a pretty good judge … having built (homes) for 40-something years.” But a review of data listed on real estate websites showed the homes to be significantly smaller — between 2,000 and 3,000 square feet, with the largest just over 3,500. Even though Bongio overestimated the size of neighboring houses by some 200 percent, he never mentioned that Schneider’s home — referenced on staff reports as 8,000 square feet with a 1,000-foot natural light cellar — was more than twice that size, coming in at 20,817 square feet spread over two stories, as Planning Director John Ford would later confirm.

The Lost Coast Outpost has reported that Bongio said he intends to step down as the Planning Commission’s chair when it meets tomorrow, though Bongio did not respond to Journal inquiries seeking to confirm that. During tomorrow’s meeting, the commission is slated to consider an official letter of apology from the commission to the Wiyot Tribe, the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria.

A draft of the letter offers a “sincere apology,” noting that “comments were made” that were “insensitive, racist and biased,” but doesn’t state who made the comments in question. It remains to be seen whether the commission will vote to send the letter as is, modify it or decline to send a formal apology at all.

View the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting — held in the Humboldt County Courthouse at 6 p.m. — here and participate remotely through the same link.

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated Bongio and Schneider's family relationship. The Journal regrets the error.

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