Even allowing for the fact that this is an election year, the speed and fury with which the coalition that has recently formed to oppose the standard tactics and practices of the Humboldt County Code Enforcement Unit was a wonder to behold. They filled up Garberville's Vets' Hall on Friday of last week, and they took up an entire day of the Board of Supervisors' time on Tuesday.
Hundreds of people at both venues took to the podium to upbraid the county on the odd specter of building inspectors showing up with a heavily armed posse to search rural residences seemingly at random, as has been happening with alarming frequency of late. (See our story "Codes Damned Codes," Feb. 28, for a description of such a raid.) Speakers, many of whom had been among the raided, could barely contain their fury at the tangled, confusing bureaucratic structure under which code enforcement operates.
But it wasn't just the hill folk who told their tales and excoriated the elected and appointed county officers who had come to hear them. It was also people like Lee Ulansey of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights,a hands-off-my-property group that arose in the wake of the county's attempt to restrict home building on lands zoned for timber production, and which now has larger aims. HumCPR's location of common ground with the lefty hill folks represents the first real political success for any of the various groups opposing land regulation in the county, many of which have come and gone.
After hundreds of people spoke out against the code enforcement raids at the Board of Supervisors' meeting Tuesday — some telling frightening tales of being the victim of a raid, others calling for heads to roll — Supervisor Roger Rodoni, who represents the Garberville area, where most of the raids have taken place, put forward a motion to place a 45-day moratorium on code enforcement activities and to appoint a task force to study the issue. It passed 4-0. (Supervisor John Woolley was absent.)
People seemed satisfied, but their newfound passions likely remain. One has to wonder whether this ad hoc coalition will stick around long enough to influence the June election. In order to win control of the update of the county's general plan — something that has been long on the mind of at least some of those baying for the firing of Community Development Services Director Kirk Girard — the development community has to ensure that Rodoni is reelected and Supervisor Jimmy Smith is not. And whoever wins the majority on the board this year can determine the shape of the county for many years to come. There's a lot of money at stake.
We note, with interest, that the 45-day moratorium on code enforcement actions is set to expire on May 23 — just a week and a half before the election. You think it's going to be an issue then?
On Friday,a not insignificant percentage of the Eureka Police Department staged an uprising at Eureka City Hall. The occasion was a Eureka City Council special meeting to sign a five-year contract with EPD Chief Garr Nielsen, who was brought in from Portland to reform the department a year ago. The EPD officers and support staff who filled the hall Friday evening sought to block the contract. They failed.
The EPD contingency in the council chambers that night made one thing clear: Nielsen has made more than one enemy during his tenure. He has reassigned several members of the department against their wishes. DeeDee Wilson, a former police dispatcher, was in tears as she testified, saying that Nielsen had taken her job away. "He has lied and cheated," she said. She said that she had filed a sexual harassment claim against him. Several sworn officers — almost all of whom stated their place of residence as Fortuna, incidentally — asked the council to wait. They said that they spoke for many, as several of their fellows were on disciplinary probation. "Chief Nielsen - he is feared," said department employee Cindy Meadows.
What was not at all clear is how much of this stems from Nielsen doing the job he was hired to do — to clean up and reform a police department that, after a string of questionable shootings and less than completely stellar police work, had pretty much reached rock-bottom — and how much was due to justifiable workplace complaints. It's still not clear.
In the end, the council made its bet: It voted 4-0 to approve Nielsen's contract at that meeting. (Councilmember Polly Endert was absent.) This was a bit surprising. Not one of the members of the city council was swayed by the insurgent officers' impassioned pleas for delay? By their fears that they would be fired, or their threats to walk? By the seeming promise of impending lawsuits? The department has suffered from chronic short-handedness in the past, and a mass defection of personnel could well bring those bad old days back, at least for a time.
Reached Tuesday, Councilmember Mike Jones, who sits on the right side of the dias and might have been expected to side with the protesting rank-and-file, would have none of it.
"There were a lot of good people that spoke up from the department — people that I've known since the sixth grade," Jones said. "Great, great people. But when there's major reform in a department, things are going to happen. Maybe the current staff doesn't appreciate it, but the public sure does."
Jones cited the members of the public who testified in favor of the chief at the meeting. They were many, even considering the short notice that the meeting was happening. What's more, they ranged across the ideological/cultural divide — prominent conservatives Rex Bohn and Greg Pierson spoke glowingly of Nielsen, as did one-time City Council candidate Ron Kuhnel. Most importantly, perhaps, the vocal contingent representing the crime-ridden West Side of Eureka had nothing but praise. That was unusual enough in itself, Jones said.
"There was one lady — when she got up and praised the chief I know that something's working here," he said.
And of the threat of personnel lawsuits against the chief? The sexual harassment allegations? Jones, for one, was content to wait and see what happens.
"I've sat up there for five years now, and I've heard allegations that never really got to my doorstep," he said. "Until they get to my doorstep in hard copy form, it is what it is."
One more quick note:Our neighbors down in Marin County have yet to resolve their difference with the North Coast Railroad Authority, the state agency that owns the moribund railroad line between here and the Bay Area. The city of Novato and Marin County, along with a whole slew of environmental organizations, are still suing the agency over alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. The case has yet to go to trial, but Novato and its co-plaintiffs have won every round so far, most recently last week.
But the railroad authority — a public agency, we reiterate — has used the occasion to open another battle with Marin County, which by some measures is the wealthiest and therefore most politically powerful county in the nation. Recently, authority attorney Chris Neary let slip that management of that litigation has been quietly delegated away from the full NCRA board, on which representatives from Marin County sit, and off to a subcommittee. The purpose appears to be to exclude Marin County residents from having a voice in the suit.
Now the two Marin County representatives on the NCRA are angry, and they were scheduled to bring the issue up at the NCRA's regular meeting on Wednesday, April 9. Judging from the tone of their memoranda, it isn't likely to be pretty.
The North Coast Railroad Authority — the can-do crew that has been winning friends and influencing people since 1990.