The ham-handedness (-headedness?) of the opposition to Caltrans' proposed realignment of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove, the stand of big trees at the south end of the county, has been previously noted in this space (see "Town Dandy," March 13). In essence, Caltrans proposes a minor tweak to the highway's path that would allow industry-standard-sized trucks in and out of the county; opponents decry this as an environmental catastrophe in the making, as well as a dastardly conspiracy put forward by big box stores and other moneyed interests to Santa Rosa-ize our beloved Humboldt and scrape all the soul away. It seems the project must be resisted at all costs. ("Yeah, not much to fight about these days," as somewhat sympathetic soul put it to me last week.)
But for sheer slapstick comedy, nothing beats the Grovies' latest "smoking gun" -- the fact that the county Headwaters Fund turns out to have paid for a public relations effort to support the Richardson Grove project. This is, in fact, a somewhat serious matter, one that is currently causing a great deal of hubbub in county government circles. So why is it funny? Because the smoking gun turns out to be aimed at the Humboldt County Community Development Services Department and its director, Kirk Girard -- number one bête noire of Eureka kazillionaire and would-be big box developer Rob Arkley!
It wasn't intended that way, of course. The matter was apparently uncovered by project opponents Dave Spreen and Ken Miller, who spent some time with the Headwaters Fund archives recently. Soon after, a tidbit was leaked to the Humboldt Herald blog (humboldtherald.wordpress.com), where it would naturally receive the desired spin. The resulting blog post -- "MY WORD! Citizens duped by Headwaters Fund" -- was wrong in all kinds of particulars. It noted that the (true) fact that the Headwaters Fund grant had paid for said PR effort, which included letters and op-eds in the Times-Standard, and (falsely) assumed that writers of said letters and op-eds were paid for their services in cold, hard cash.
In fact, part of the Headwaters money paid for the services of a media consultant (Ann Johnson Stromberg, a former Times-Standard reporter and eminently competent person) to whip the sizeable pro-project business community into making its views known. In substance, in other words, not that different from environmental groups do every day -- what the Grovies themselves did, in fact, with their radio campaign last month.
Except for the fact that public money was used in the campaign. And therein lies the tale.
When the Headwaters Fund board originally approved this particular grant, back in 2003/2004, the money was supposed to do two particular things, both related to improving trucking into Humboldt County. It was supposed to pay for a Washington lobbyist to advocate for improvements to Hwy. 299, and also to fund a traffic study for Hwy. 101. But by the time the original term of the grant expired, in 2006, that work had already been done and was mostly funded through other sources. So there was money left over.
At that point, the Community Development Services department, which administers the Headwaters grants, decided to shift the budget and instead award pieces of the leftover money to itself. There were two adjustments and extensions to the grant contract, in 2006 and 2008. Each time, a bigger chunk of the $50,000 grant was shifted into the budget of the county's Economic Development Department, which is under Community Development's purview. By 2008, fully half the grant was given to Economic Development, and the terms of the contract changed to allow money to be spent to "prepare and disseminate information to the business community and the public."
These changes in the terms of the contract never went back to the Headwaters Fund board for approval, despite policy saying that any such change amounting to over $10,000 must be so approved. The 2008 contract included changes of over $10,000 in at least one line item, so policy was not followed. Plenty of people are now wondering how this came to pass, and most of them are now looking to Girard for answers.
These are exceedingly grim times for the Times-Standard. Business reporter Erin Tracy was laid off earlier this week, casualty in the latest round of editorial cutbacks at the paper. The region's only daily newspaper, the T-S is now down to a grand total of five full-time news reporters. Together those five are somehow supposed to cover an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, seven days a week.
That said, we hate to put our colleagues through any unwarranted pain. And though we'd stand by much of last week's "Media Maven" column criticizing coverage of the Humboldt Creamery scandal, it came to our attention Tuesday afternoon that there were some errors contained therein. To wit: The T-S's original story was not 400-odd words in length; it was over 900, all told. The paper had published 16 reports and editorials by the time our paper hit the streets -- not 10, as we had written.
The Journal regrets the errors, and urges our T-S brethren to soldier on with heads held high.