Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Alan Bongio got one thing right during brief remarks to his fellow commissioners Oct. 6, as they prepared to send a letter to three local tribes apologizing for his "insensitive," "racist" and "biased" comments.
"There's some things that didn't add up that night," Bongio said defiantly of the commission's Aug. 18 meeting, at which, during a discussion of local developer Travis Schneider's violations of his coastal development permit, he made the aforementioned comments, accusing the Wiyot Tribe and Blue Lake Rancheria — "the Indians," in his words — of negotiating in bad faith, being dishonest, playing a "game" with cultural resources and trying to extort Schneider for more concessions.
While Bongio warned at the Oct. 6 meeting of the perils of the commission failing to ask hard questions, worried of the "injustice" that would be done if commissioners fell prey to worries of being "politically correct" or "woke" enough, what didn't add up at the time was Bongio's own failures to ask the tough questions staring him in the face that night or why he seemed so hell-bent on pushing Schneider's project through.
After all, Bongio could have asked if Schneider had a history of permit violations, why he didn't stop work when ordered by the county or if all his other permits were in line.
Had he asked those "hard" questions, he would have found out that yes, Schneider had begun construction on the project at least eight months before receiving a building permit, that he continued construction for 50 days after receiving the stop work order in open defiance of Planning Department instructions, according to Director John Ford, and that his other permits were not, in fact, in line. More specifically, Bongio might have found that Schneider had begun construction without a required septic permit and with approved building plans that were somehow for a structure twice as large as allowed under his coastal development permit.
Bongio also could have directed hard questions to county staff, asking why plans and permits were approved out of step with the governing coastal development permit, or why staff failed to incorporate specific Blue Lake Rancheria requests made in 2017 regarding Schneider's permit conditions — requests that might have prevented his subsequent violations. He also could have asked about the apparent disconnect between the Blue Lake Rancheria's assertions that a tribal historic preservation officer and a county planner met Schneider at the property in 2017 (after he'd reportedly graded a driveway without a permit) to show him the cultural site location and discuss its significance, and Schneider's assertions he had no idea where it was.
But Bongio didn't ask any of those hard questions. That's only part of the reason his conduct didn't quite add up.
After all, had he read the staff report, it would have been clear the project was before the commission that day because of documented violations. Specifically, Schneider had built his home on a different footprint than approved, violating wetland setbacks in the process; he bulldozed environmentally sensitive habitat he'd promised to preserve as a condition of his permit; and he cut an unpermitted temporary construction access road onto the property. Yet Bongio seemed to fall all over himself advocating for the man who'd violated county permits, saying Schneider had "done everything that's asked of him" and imploring his fellow commissioners to "let the poor guy get back to building his house."
Of course, we know more now than we did Aug. 18 and now we see that things do, in fact, add up.
We know, for example, that Bongio is related to Schneider through his wife's family, and we know that relationship apparently meant enough that Bongio spent a day volunteering his time to do concrete work on the project — facts that Bongio withheld from his fellow commissioners. We also know that it seems that concrete work likely occurred when Schneider was constructing his home without a final building permit — in flagrant violation of the law. And, of course, we know about the bevy of other violations and issues mentioned above, all of which were lurking just out of public view Aug. 18.
So why would a long-sitting member of a quasi-judicial commission comport himself in such a way? It's a hard question only Bongio can answer. But when we add up the pieces from Aug. 18 and its aftermath, it seems a sitting commission chair actively hid his involvement in a project and his familial relationship with the applicant, while doing everything he could to push permit approvals through without added scrutiny, perhaps because he knew a such scrutiny would unearth the laundry list of code and permit violations that have since been laid bare.
We said it in these pages on Sept. 8 and we'll say it again now in the clearest and most uncertain terms: Bongio must go. His conduct has been dishonest, biased, racist and in clear indifference to the public trust he's been handed.
When Bongio's conduct (or at least, what we knew of it then) came before the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 20, the man who appointed him — First District Supervisor Rex Bohn — called his statements "reprehensible," but said he wouldn't revoke Bongio's appointment, saying he'd known the commissioner for more than 50 years.
"I can't fire my friend," he said. "I'm sorry."
This leads us to a final hard question for Supervisor Bohn: What's more important, the public's trust or your friend's feelings?
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill. Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson. Kimberly Wear (she/her) is the digital editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 323, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.