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Supes Censure Embattled Planning Commission Chair

Bohn supports asking appointee to step down as chair but won't seek his resignation

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The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Sept. 20 to censure Planning Commissioner Alan Bongio and ask him to step down from the position of chair due to his repeated outbursts at the commission's Aug. 18 meeting that many have condemned as racist and inappropriate.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn made the motion to censure Bongio and ask him to step down as chair, but said he would not support asking for his outright resignation from the commission. Bohn said Bongio's comments "hurt" him but said he's known the man for 55 years and lauded his almost 10 years serving on the commission.

"We all have bad days; we all say things we shouldn't say. It was beyond that — I agree — and he got caught up in the fever," Bohn said, quickly adding that Bongio has repeatedly been voted chair by his peers, has a meeting attendance record "second-to-none" and had not received any written complaints in his time on the commission until one was filed Sept. 19 by the Wiyot Tribe stemming from his conduct at the August meeting. "Do we take all that and just throw it down the drain and give him no respect for what's done for the last 10 years?"

Bohn concluded: "I can't fire my friend. I'm sorry." But Bohn said if Bongio refuses to step down as the commission's chair, he would then ask him to resign from the commission.

The discussion — instigated by Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone's request that a discussion and possible censure of Bongio be put on the agenda — came as the embattled commissioner faces increasing pressure on various fronts.

The trouble started at the Aug. 18 Planning Commission meeting as the commission mulled approving permits needed to allow local developer Travis Schneider to get a county stop work order lifted and resume construction of his family home off Indianola Cutoff. When learning that two local tribes — the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Wiyot Tribe — opposed the permit approvals, feeling more details needed to be added to proposed mitigation and restoration plans, Bongio repeatedly made far-reaching comments about "Indians" while accusing the tribes of negotiating in bad faith, trying to extort more concessions out of Schneider, playing a "game" with cultural resources and reneging on an agreement. Tribal officials and others found Bongio's comments offensive, with Wiyot Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez saying they'd caused him to lose faith in the Planning Commission.

During the commission's Sept. 1 meeting, Bongio apologized to the tribes if he "in any way offended them."

On Sept. 8, heads of nine local nonprofit organizations signed a letter to Bohn asking for Bongio's resignation or that Bohn rescind his appointment to the Planning Commission, deeming his conduct "unacceptable" and saying it "makes clear that he is not fit for this position." Then on Sept. 13, Humboldt Community Services District Boardmember Michael Hansen asked that the elected board consider stripping Bongio, one of its members, of his status as board president at its Sept. 27 meeting.

The Wiyot Tribe submitted a formal complaint to County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes and the county's Human Resources Department deeming Bongio's language "racist and offensive" and saying he appeared to stop just short of using the insult "Indian giver" in reference to them. Further, the Wiyot Tribe contends Bongio showed a deep bias in favor of the developer and against local tribes and laws designed to protect their interests during the meeting.

Hayes told the board Sept. 20 that she and human resources would be investigating the complaint and determining what future action to take.

Madrone, for his part, told the Journal prior to the board's meeting that he found Bongio's conduct troubling and felt it needed to be addressed at the board level.

"I feel a responsibility to the community," he said. "It's not OK and I'm not just going to go around and let that kind of stuff go unchecked and unchallenged. Otherwise, what are we doing here?"

While Madrone had suggested the board direct steps to develop a code of conduct and diversity, equity and inclusion policy for the Planning Commission, Hayes indicated such efforts are already under way and will come before the board next month. When that happens, Hayes said staff will present various possible changes to the appointment and removal process. Currently, district commissioners are appointed by their supervisor, and only that supervisor can rescind the appointment. Hayes indicated one option to be considered would see a majority vote of the board determine commissioner appointments and removals.

Meanwhile, Bongio also serves as president of the Humboldt Community Services District Board of Directors and during the body's Sept. 13 meeting, Director Michael Hansen asked that the board consider his removal from that post at its Sept. 27 meeting.

"I just think that it was indefensible what he did and someone who's in all these powerful positions and making these decisions at the very least needs to have some common sense and respect for other people and other cultures," Hansen told the Journal, explaining why he asked that the board consider stripping Bongio of his presidency. "It's not the first time Director Bongio has pushed the limits with some of his speech and I felt like it was the least I could do to support others who are dealing with what he did, and basically just the type of person he is."

Bongio did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

Both Hansen and Madrone said they felt Bongio's apology at the Sept. 1 meeting didn't go nearly far enough to address the damage he'd caused, with Hansen saying, "he apologized more for offending people than the act itself." Madrone said, "Any time you begin an apology with an if and half-way through there's a but, it's not an apology. It just isn't."

The supervisor's conversation about Bongio's conduct came as the county is rolling out a new diversity, equity and inclusion program that includes all-hands training days designed to help staff recognize their implicit or unconscious biases. Bohn said Bongio has already undergone one such training at the supervisor's request in the wake of the Aug. 18 meeting, and that it's important he learn "about the cultural aspects of our Native population." The supervisor added that "part of the problem is education."

"We need to get it out there so it is less confrontational and more learning about how we accept their way of life, their past way of life, and how we move forward with that acceptance all the way through," he said.

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson said such trainings and efforts need to go well beyond education if they're going to be meaningful, saying participants really need to look deep inside themselves and confront the biases they carry — biases ingrained and reinforced through generations.

"This is actually the real work," Wilson said, dismissing the notion that Bongio just had a bad day that allowed bias to creep into his comments that he wasn't already carrying. "It's not like it just showed up one day and there it was."

Fourth District Supervisor and Board Chair Virginia Bass later struck a similar tone, saying the true work is "internalizing and understanding a way of life" that's different than yours and working to confront biases that may be present.

"I think many of us, including myself, have a lot of work to do," she said.

The Planning Commission's next scheduled meeting is Oct. 6. It remains to be seen whether Bongio will still be serving as its chair.

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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