Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Full Disclosure



It was an exciting Wednesday afternoon last week, as the crowd of people considering running for supervisor in the Arcata-centered Third District winnowed itself down to just three right at the deadline. The two last-minute candidates we wrote about last week, Lee Ulansey and Chris Lehman, de-candidated themselves right after we went to press. So did Bay District Commissioner Mike Wilson, who at several points during the last few weeks of bumping and jostling looked like the favorite.

Meanwhile, Arcata financial planner Bryan Plumley dove into the fray, brandishing a platform of sound technocratic management and economic development. Summing up, that means that it will be Plumley v. Arcata City Councilmember Paul Pitino v. land use activist Mark Lovelace on the Third District's June 3 ballot.

There's three seats on the Board of Supervisors — a majority — up for grabs this time around. All are being contested. We expect that all of them will be contested hard, since this is sort of an epoch-changing moment for county government. The new general plan — the document that will serve as the county's "constitution" for the next 20 years or so, especially on matters pertaining to development — has been delayed again and again, but it can't be delayed much longer. Whoever has a majority on the board in the next two years will have great influence in shaping the course of the county for a long time.

Over the next couple of issues we'll be taking this space on the road. We'll be profiling each of the districts up for election and taking a snapshot of the state of the campaign. For now, though, we're going to focus on one particular issue — or non-issue, if you like — at home, here in the Third.

Here in Humboldt County, bringing up the question of someone's personal finances is always awkward. But that shouldn't be the case when it comes to elected officials, or those who otherwise serve or seek to serve the public as policymakers. There are laws on the books — most notably, the California Political Reform Act — that require a degree of openness. These are good laws. Locally, no one has taken more notice of them than Mark Lovelace, who as head of the Humboldt Watershed Council has filed complaints against two Humboldt County officials relating to their business interests with the Pacific Lumber Co.: Planning Commission Chair Tom Herman and Fortuna Mayor John Campbell. The Fair Political Practices Commission has agreed to investigate both cases.

But what of Lovelace himself? How does he make a living? Now that he's standing for office the question is fair. For years there have been rumors that the nonprofit organization for which he works is funded wholly or in large part by a single, wealthy individual who is associated with any number of left-wing causes in Humboldt County. Shouldn't Lovelace have to disclose that?

We won't name the individual, because it turns out that the rumors in question are demonstrably false. The Humboldt Watershed Council files tax returns every year. Because it is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation, those returns are public. Here's what they show.

The organization took in little money between 2000 and 2004. Donations ranged between $10,000 and $50,000 annually, with most years at the lower end of the scale. Then, in 2005, it took in a massive donation, relatively speaking: $121,000. The large surplus of funds allowed the council to spend a great deal the next year, while the fight over the county general plan was raging particularly hot. The money was directed to the "Healthy Humboldt Coalition," a joint project of the Watershed Council, the Northcoast Environmental Center and the Sierra Club that advocates for "smart growth"-style land use planning.

Where did that very large grant come from? A call to Lovelace got the answer, and another trip to a database containing the IRS returns of nonprofit organizations confirmed it. The money was a grant from the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, a Sacramento-based charitable organization dedicated to conservation. The foundation awarded the Watershed Council $125,000 as part of its "Preserving Wild California" program — "a five-year, $150 million effort to protect wild lands and rivers across the state," according to its website.

Lovelace himself has drawn a relatively small salary from the council: $34,000 in 2006. "The salary would be more if the position had been fully funded, but I was paid for about three-quarters of the scheduled time and probably worked time and a half," he said Monday.

That supposed sugar daddy? Lovelace said that he had indeed given money to the Watershed Council from time to time, just as many community members had. But the biggest part of the council's budget has come from charitable grants.

As his economic disclosure statements to the county showed, Lovelace made a bit of money from his consulting business in 2007, but he largely gave that up in favor of advocacy work around the issues of forestry and land use planning, which "seemed so much more important and pressing."

"This is the stuff that intrigued me and sucked up my time," he said. "If I'd put more time into that consulting — there's good money when it's there, but I was drawn to other things."

At its Tuesday meeting, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors joined local governments across the country in proclaiming this week as "Sunshine Week" — a week to promote and celebrate open government and freedom of information. The proclamation came at the request of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, which, we'll note again, is far and away the smartest and most chic chapter in the state. Sunshine Week is a great cause. The League should be thanked for bringing it forward, and the board should be congratulated for hopping on.

Of course, though, there's words and there's deeds. One is easy, one is not so easy. And as we wrote a few months ago in an open letter to the county counsel's office — see "Town Dandy," Sept. 20 — the machinery of Humboldt County government doesn't always live up to the high standards championed by the board this week.

In our experience, openness in Humboldt County government varies wildly depending on which branch of the beast you happen to be dealing with. Coroner? A complete joy. Elections? Always helpful and a pleasure to deal with, but still operating under the delusion that it can charge $160 for a database of registered voters. Sheriff's Office? Invariably professional, quick to return calls, but sometimes possessive of information that could be voluntarily disclosed. County courts? Misplaced or unavailable files, surly attitude, poor understanding of the law. Health and Human Services? You might as well try to get information from Pyongyang.

Omnipresent Humboldt County gadfly David Elsebusch interrupted the Board of Supervisors' Sunshine fest Tuesday morning to deliver a contrary view, and as it happened we agreed with almost everything he had to say. "Unfortunately, if you choose to vote for this proclamation it will include a bit of irony and hypocrisy," Elsebusch started, and then he proceeded to a list of particulars.

There were a few, but the number one was the Tamara Falor matter. That Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors was preparing to proclaim its support of open government; a year ago, the very same board voted 3-2 to pay Falor, then its county counsel, nearly $300,000 in walk-away money. The agreement stipulated that neither Falor nor the board would discuss the payout, nor the issues between Falor and the county that led to it. The agreement itself was Sunshine Week antimatter — it was specifically designed to keep the public from ever knowing what its money was being spent to accomplish, and so far it's been successful. (Supervisors Jill Geist and Jimmy Smith voted against the Falor payoff, to their eternal credit.)

Now Elsebusch is suing county government over the deal, and we wish him the best. Also, godspeed to the Humboldt County Grand Jury, which stated in last year's annual report that it would continue to investigate the matter. You want to support Sunshine Week? Support Elsebusch and the Grand Jury.

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