Letters + Opinion » Editorial

Wagging the Dog



There are currently six people whom Eureka voters have entrusted to make city decisions on their behalf. Five councilmembers and a mayor. That's it.

But these six people — all of whom have volunteered to work long hours and take on a bunch of responsibility (not to mention public scrutiny) in exchange for a modest stipend — are hugely dependent on city staff to handle day-to-day operations of the city. After all, it's staff that fills potholes, polices neighborhoods, approves building permits and maintains city parks. It's also staff's responsibility to make sure the city's elected officials have all the information they need to make the decisions their constituents elected them to make. After all, we can't expect the council members to personally vet prospective contractors, extensively research the potential legal ramifications of a proposed ordinance or step to the dais with an innate understanding the complexities of traffic flow and collision rates.

This leaves paid city staff in a crucial role. They must be trusted subject matter experts whose opinions carry weight with the council. But they must also be ever mindful of the fact that the ultimate decisions aren't theirs to make as the tail never wags the dog. There's a reason they call it public service — it's a role that demands tremendous humility and a devout attention to detail and process.

When these processes break down, things quickly come off the rails. This was on full display last month as the city of Eureka looked to hire an outside organization to market the city under the terms of a $370,000 annual contract.

Here's a quick synopsis for those who weren't following the story ("Comedy of Errors," June 6). The city put out a request in February asking interested organizations to submit their proposals — plans for marketing the city, complete with budgets and timelines, coupled with their qualifications — in both print and digital form by April 5. A total of 12 organizations expressed interest and submitted materials. Among them was Humboldt Made, which currently operates the city's visitor center. But there were some now very well-publicized errors with Humboldt Made's submission, namely that the organization inadvertently sent a rough draft of the proposal to the printer, didn't check its work and then submitted those rough drafts to the city. Oh, and according to the city, Humboldt Made also failed to submit its digital version by the April 5 deadline. But city staff allowed the organization to resubmit, deeming the errors minor "irregularities."

Now, if staff had then given the proposal review panel, the public and the council accurate and timely information about what had happened, the story likely wouldn't have gone much further. It may have reflected poorly on Humboldt Made's proposal or it might have disqualified it outright, but it's almost certainly not something we'd be writing about weeks later.

But instead, staff withheld that information from the review panel and offered false and evolving answers to the public and the council about Humboldt Made's proposal and the review process.

City Manager Greg Sparks, Community Development Director Rob Holmlund and Deputy Development Director Lane Millar each at times said the error with Humboldt Made's printed proposal was limited to a single duplicate page and that the organization had submitted its correct final proposal digitally by the April 5 deadline. Additionally, they also indicated that another organization had missed the deadline entirely and been allowed to submit late on April 8, when the firm had actually submitted its paper proposal on time and only failed to upload the digital copy. During a May 21 council meeting, Holmlund and Millar also repeatedly told the council that the city had conducted a second round of interviews with two finalists because they were only separated by a narrow margin and the review panel felt it needed additional time vetting the applicants, when the second interviews were in fact scheduled because of a staff error that left Humboldt Made ill prepared for the first interview.

While Sparks has maintained there was no willful effort to mislead the council or the public, the situation doesn't pass the smell test — especially considering three of the four false narratives directly benefitted Humboldt Made and the fourth seems aimed at hiding a staff error from the light of day. That's also not to mention that Millar's report to the council at its May 21 meeting seemed to drift at times into cheerleading and lobbying for Humboldt Made more than a simple recommendation, much less a neutral recitation of the facts.

When the council finally became fully appraised of the situation — after the city attorney intervened following an inquiry from the Journal about apparent irregularities with the process — it voted in closed session June 4 to disqualify Humboldt Made and award the contract to the other finalist, the nationally renowned firm Eddy Alexander based in Virginia. It was probably the right decision — made in the best interest of the city — as starting the process over from scratch or continuing forward with Humboldt Made as a finalist both seemed untenable options, given the mess created by city staff and the distrust it engendered.

And Sparks has already announced that he's changed the city's competitive bidding process to require that all submittals are checked by the Finance Department — not whichever department is directly overseeing the process — to make sure they meet the city's requirements. In an interview with the Journal, Sparks clarified that the change is designed to institute an "independent check" on the submittals, which is a start.

But this conversation can't end here. The contract with Eddy Alexander and a resolution disqualifying Humboldt Made are scheduled to come back before the council June 18 and we urge the council to use that stage to publicly vet exactly what happened here. How did staff repeatedly volunteer misleading information to the council and the public? Was this simple incompetence or a willful attempt from some members of city staff to wag the dog, to make the kinds of decisions no one elected them to make? The council — and the public — needs answers.

After all, City Hall only exists for the benefit of Eureka's residents. And through a public process, those residents vetted and elected six people to make decisions on their behalf. Anyone who can't accept and embrace those two basic facts isn't fit to work there.

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

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