Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Assume the Position



Well, you can take off the bumper stickers. Maxxam is out of Humboldt. That's it for Charles Hurwitz . Twenty-two years later, and not a moment too soon, every card has been played. He's getting up from the table, pockets quite a bit heavier, and moseying off into the Texas sunset. The once-proud Pacific Lumber Co. will soon no longer belong to him.

We kept waiting for Hurwitz's big sneak comeback maneuver in the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy case, the quick feint that would allow him to hold onto the company, but it never came. And then last week Maxxam announced that it was abandoning all its remaining plans for the company and signing on with Mendocino Redwood Co., which is by now the certain front-runner in the struggle for Pacific Lumber. Mendocino Redwoods apparently achieved this change of heart through giving Maxxam a tiny bit better of an exit deal than they would have gotten otherwise. A few more million here and there, it seems — nothing spectacular.

So with Hurwitz out of the running, there's two factions left standing. Mendocino Redwood Co. and its partners, Marathon Capital, hope to swallow the Pacific Lumber assets whole and keep the company running more or less as-is, though apparently with a drastically scaled-back rate of cut and a pledge not to cut old growth. They've already performed a similar trick with former Georgia Pacific lands in the county to our south, and they believe they can replicate it here. Not coincidentally, the purchase would give Mendocino Redwoods something quite close to a monopoly on the worldwide redwood market.

On the other side are the owners of Pacific Lumber subsidiary Scotia Pacific's "timber bonds," first issued nearly a decade ago and carrying a face value of some $730 million. The bondholders want to sell the company's 200,000 acres of Humboldt County land to the highest bidder. They have no plans for the company mill in Scotia. Their plan has attracted attention from a strange assortment of potential bidders: a billionaire poker champ, Harvard University, the Nature Conservancy. No one's quite sure how serious any of these parties are.

The question now is whether or not the Mendocino Redwoods plan pays off the bondholders adequately. They have to pay them off at least as much as the lands are worth. How much are the lands worth? That's the question. Mendocino Redwoods says about $530 million. The bondholders say a lot more. If the judge agrees with the bondholders, Mendocino has to either make up the difference or get out of the way. The case goes forward.

But not without a fond look back. Petrolia resident Ellen Taylor has been indefatigable in promoting her "Hurwitz in Handcuffs" competition, which seeks ballads and doggerel poetry memorializing the day, last year, that Charles Hurwitz was briefly detained by Humboldt County Sheriff's Office personnel at the Eureka-Arcata Airport (in McKinleyville). Well, we note in the court's record that Taylor officially extended the hand to Judge Richard Schmidt , who is overseeing the bankruptcy case in Corpus Christi. Taylor asked if Schmidt might like to also judge the "Hurwitz in Handcuffs" competition. He politely declined.

But what's this in our mailbox? It's the "Hurwitz in Handcuffs" CD, featuring songs and poetry from a who's who of Humboldt County All-Stars, including a number affiliated to one degree or another with the Journal. Our Bob Doran's mom, Jean , kicks things off with a little ditty called "Greed." There's frequent poetry contributer David Holper with his contribution, "Ballad of C H Being Handcuffed." There's Ryan Hurley , he of the late "Captain Buhne" blog, insouciantly redoing a TV sitcom theme: "Charles Should Be Charged." Plus: Darryl Cherney , Joe Shermis , Fhyre Phoenix , Julian Lang , David Simpson , Seth Zuckerman and oh so many more.

Look for it in fine local record stores.

Remember, from last week, the case of the Redwood Bark, the Eureka High School student newspaper whose last issue was confiscated by EHS Principal Bob Steffen ? We put in our two cents on the matter, which was that Steffen had acted inappropriately by censoring the newspaper because it happened to include a drawing of the nude female form. Whether he liked it or not, the principal was going to enact an object lesson in civil liberties at Eureka High. Either his charges would learn that the Constitution guaranteed certain inalienable rights, or they would learn that just a tiny bit of offense-taking and outrage can result in people of authority summarily stripping away those rights. As we said, we believe Steffen acted wrongly. Since we've had a chance to read the censored issue of the Bark, we believe it even more strongly. Eureka High has some talented kids.

But in addition to acting inappropriately, did Steffen also act criminally? That's a question that came to us by e-mail from Jim Ewert , legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association of which the Journal is a proud member. Ewert came across the story on our web site, and he had a few thoughts on the case. In Ewert's reading, Steffen may well have broken the law when he confiscated those newspapers — not the First Amendment or any other high and mighty statement of principle, but a very concrete and specific law. Steffen could have committed larceny, as defined in the California Penal Code.

"The Legislature finds that free newspapers provide a key source of information to the public, in many cases providing an important alternative to the news and ideas expressed in other local media sources," reads Penal Code Section 490.7(a), singing a song beautiful to our ears. "The Legislature further finds that the unauthorized taking of multiple copies of free newspapers, whether done to sell them to recycling centers, to injure a business competitor, to deprive others of the opportunity to read them, or for any other reason, injures the rights of readers, writers, publishers, and advertisers, and impoverishes the marketplace of ideas in California." To take more than 25 copies for any of the aforementioned purposes, therefore, is illegal. Larceny.

The penalties? For a first offender, as we presume Steffen to be, the crime of larceny as committed against a free newspaper such as the Redwood Bark is deemed an infraction, and is punishable by a fine of $250, maximum. Subsequent violations carry a maximum fine of $500 and 10 days in jail.

It must be noted that if and when the Eureka Police Department comes to haul away Steffen in cuffs, the principal has one possible defense. The law specifically excludes from potential liability "the owner or operator of the property on which the newsrack is placed." Could Steffen convince a judge that he is "the operator" of Eureka High School, a public institution? Conceivably, but Ewert notes that the provision has yet to be tested in the courts.

"I realize I am raising more questions than answers, but I thought the potential application of the law in this situation was intriguing," Ewert wrote us. Yes, indeed, counselor — intriguing. We have passed your thoughts on to the proper authorities.

Another general in the Great Eureka Newspaper War has fallen. Eureka Reporter publisher Judi Pollace announced on Monday afternoon that Managing Editor Glenn Franco Simmons had resigned from the paper. Pollace said that the resignation was for personal reasons, and declined to elaborate. "We wish him all the luck in the world," she said. Pollace said that she was in the process of writing an ad to seek a replacement for Simmons when the Journal called.

At this writing, we're not sure what the real deal is — "personal reasons" could cover it exactly, for all we know, even though the departure seems to have been somewhat abrupt. Simmons had helmed the paper, owned by Eureka kazillionaire Rob Arkley , since it was founded as an Internet-only publication in the summer of 2003. He was an endearing editorial voice, even if he did sometimes get absurdly hotheaded about the supposed misdeeds of his colleagues and competitors at the Times-Standard. His staff, we know, loved him, even if they sometimes had a hard time figuring out what exactly it was that he did.

He'll still be around town. Maybe we can get him to write something for the Journal.

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