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New Revelations Raise New Questions of Bongio's Bias

PlanCo sends letter of apology to Wiyot area tribes, chair steps down

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Alan Bongio officially and somewhat defiantly stepped down as Humboldt County Planning Commission chair before the commission's Oct. 6 meeting at which the board voted unanimously to send a letter of apology to three Wiyot area tribes stemming from Bongio's conduct at a meeting last month.

The meeting came amid new revelations — first reported by the Journal — that Bongio did concrete work during 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, including the Aug. 18 meeting at which he made disparaging comments about local tribes. Bongio also did not disclose that Schneider is a relative, with Bongio's sister being Schneider's wife's aunt by marriage.

Schneider told the Journal that Bongio spent one day at the project site in 2019 doing concrete work. Asked if Bongio had been paid, Schneider initially said he was not sure but, after checking with his office, later said the then Planning Commission chair's work was unpaid.

The Journal also learned shortly before going to press Oct. 11 that Bongio's work on the project may have come during a long period in which Schneider had begun construction without a final building permit, which was eventually issued Nov. 27, 2019. (Schneider said he did not recall when in 2019 Bongio performed the work.) Responding to a Journal inquiry about seeming inconsistencies in the permitting and construction timelines, County Planning Director John Ford said a building inspector confirmed unpermitted work was underway on the home in March of 2019 and Schneider was informed he did "not have a building permit and needed to obtain one."

Construction on the home continued, nonetheless, Ford said, despite the director describing it as "not allowed." Ford said he does not know whether the county considered issuing a stop work order.

"I was not aware of this project at the time," he said. "There was a different chief building inspector at the time. Today, we would issue a stop work order."

The new revelations add to already existing questions of bias concerning Bongio's handling of Schneider's permits and provide context to his remarks at the commission's Aug. 18 meeting on the matter.

Here's a look at the latest developments.

Bongio Steps Down, Commission Apologizes

While he did not address it during the meeting, Bongio stepped down from his long-standing role as commission chair prior to the meeting, which the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ask him to do while censuring him last month.

The commission took up the apology letter as the last item on its agenda. Introducing the item, acting Chair Noah Levy explained Ford had drafted the letter after meeting with him and Bongio. Levy had suggested the letter at the commission's Sept. 1 meeting to address Bongio's conduct at the commission's prior meeting.

During its Aug. 18 meeting, the commission was considering possible permit modifications needed to lift a stop work order on construction at Schneider's home, which was issued after it was discovered he'd violated his coastal development permit in numerous ways. The Wiyot Tribe and the Blue Lake Rancheria had submitted comment letters urging the commission not to move forward, saying more details needed to be worked out in terms of mitigation and restoration plans to gain their support.

A representative of Schneider accused the tribes of lying, after which Bongio accused them of acting in bad faith, playing a "game" with cultural resources to extract more concessions out of Schneider 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.

The draft letter did not name Bongio specifically and offered an apology on behalf of the entire commission, calling comments made "insensitive, racist and biased," and saying the commission "did nothing to address the problem in the moment and so we are all responsible."

The draft letter concluded by asking the tribes, if they would be willing, to schedule a meeting outside of the courthouse so the commissioners can "hear from you, grow in our understanding and seek restoration."

When the commission started discussing the draft, some changes had already been made from the version in the staff report. Specifically, the new draft of the letter included a line noting that comments at the meeting "understandably may have shaken your faith in the impartiality of this commission," and struck the line asking for forgiveness, replacing it with: "We understand ... that cultivating a positive relationship with the Wiyot people will require time and commitment." 

Commission Thomas Mulder seemed to reference the changes when he registered some concern about possible violations of California's open meeting laws, saying some commissioners had weighed in on the draft letter via email prior to the meeting.

Commissioner Peggy O'Neill, who had been the most vocal commissioner in pushing back against Bongio's remarks during the Aug. 18 meeting, was then the first to address the draft letter's content.

"I don't like the way it was written and the way it insinuates that we as a group did nothing and that 'we're all responsible,'" O'Neill said. "I'm fine with a letter, I'm fine with sending something out, I'm just not going to sign something that says I feel like I'm responsible for something I don't feel I'm responsible for. ... I'm not racist, and I'm not biased and I'm not insensitive, and I don't feel like signing a letter saying that I am and that I'm responsible for that type of behavior."

Bongio then indicated he couldn't agree more with O'Neill's feeling that some on the commission had pushed back on his comments during the Aug. 18 meeting. He said he didn't really want to have input on the letter, but then launched into a seeming defense of his conduct, while saying he wasn't trying to make excuses.

"All I would say is, not trying to make excuses for any of that meeting, I'm just saying if we don't, at this commission, ask hard questions and we don't delve into things, I think we're doing just as big of an injustice to the county of Humboldt because it is our job to sort through these issues," Bongio said. "Because there's some things that didn't add up that night. I think everyone felt it — well, I think the majority felt it. ... I'm just saying that I think we run a real risk when we're so worried about being politically correct or — I don't even know what the term — woke enough? I don't know what the term is exactly that goes over this. I'm just saying we need to have respect in the discourse and I will say it was not my best night. You know, I'm just trying to be honest here but I think we go down a really slippery slope if we can't be open to talking about the project and the whole thing, whatever it is. Because there is going to be another project like this — I can promise you — the way things have been going."

Commissioner Brian Mitchell stressed that he felt it was very important to send the letter out, saying he agreed with some light edits suggested by O'Neill to change the letter from stating the commission "did nothing" to stating it "did not do enough" to address the problem during the meeting. O'Neill reiterated that she doesn't know what more she could have done in the moment.

Ford then interjected that this is an issue he's working with the County Administrative Office on, as far as coming up with a code of procedures for the commission. Normally, he said, it is up to the commission's chair to address any behavior that violates general rules of conduct.

"But then what happens when, perhaps, that behavior is coming from the chair?" he asked. "How does a commissioner respond? Is it up to the staff? I've never seen staff admonish a commission, in all honesty .... The reality is that the commission is the authoritative body here."

Ford then called it a "nearly impossible situation" without guidance in place.

Commissioner Mike Newman then said he wanted to "take the temperature" of the rest of the commission on possibly taking out the adjectives "racist" and "biased," leaving just "insensitive."

"What are the feeling of the rest of the commissions about those?" Newman asked, later saying he thought "insensitive was enough there, in my opinion."

Ford interjected again to say the intent was to recognize two things: that there were comments made and that the response from the commission wasn't adequate.

"In all honesty, part of a good apology is to completely own what happened and not try to understate it and make it seem like it wasn't as bad as it really was," Ford said. "And this letter was written to forcefully state that what happened wasn't appropriate and that's why some strong adjectives are used."

Mulder then weighed in saying it's better to leave the stronger adjectives in the letter, saying the people the commission was apologizing to may feel them appropriate.

McCavour then requested changing the invitation at the close of the letter from a meeting to a luncheon, saying it's a "nicer way to meet people."

With the edits in place, the commission voted unanimously to approve sending the letter to the Wiyot Tribe, the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria.

Revelations Add to Questions of Bias

While Bongio has not responded to multiple Journal requests for comment, Schneider confirmed his familial relationship with the commissioner and that Bongio had volunteered time working on the project, permits for which he would later consider as a supposed impartial judge on the Planning Commission.

Leading the Journal on an Oct. 3 tour 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 said yes, but added they don't spend holidays together or gather for family functions.

Following up on a tip, the Journal then asked if Bongio had done any concrete work on the project and Schneider confirmed he had — some concrete work on a covered patio after another contractor fell through.

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 three years earlier.

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, 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," 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" may come into question, 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.

Well before the latest revelations, controversy swirled around Bongio's handling of the Schneider permitting matter — and not just his use of the term "Indians" or questioning the good faith of local tribes.

During the Aug. 18 meeting, Bongio repeatedly made references to Schneider having done everything asked of him, appearing to ignore the numerous initial permit violations or the fact that Schneider continued construction for 50 days after receiving the county's first stop work order.

When the commission reconvened Sept. 1, Levy raised the topic of Bongio's bias.

"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 a 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 Ford would later confirm.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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