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Telling Tales



Once again, dear reader, that vast gulf that separates today from tomorrow intrudes upon our weekly communion. What we want to talk about is what happened (what will happen) Tuesday night, when the Eureka City Council meets to consider Mayor Virginia Bass' appointment to fill the vacant, tie-breaking Second Ward seat. But you already know what the Council said and did, and I don't. It makes conversation awkward.

What I can prognosticate with a relative degree of certainty is that the Council will have delayed their vote on Mayor Bass' appointee - Polly Endert, the 39-year-old general manager of Eureka's Quality Inn - until a special council session this Thursday evening. The Council had (has) the option of appointing Endert to the seat at its regular meeting Tuesday night, but half of its membership wanted (wants) to wait, and Mayor Bass said Tuesday that she will honor their wishes.

There's been quite a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the appointment process, which is perhaps to be expected in a politically divided city with a politically divided City Council. To recap: The progressive faction came up just short in the November election, leaving the other faction - a kind of conservative-moderate alliance - with the upper hand. Bass, a con-mod, was elevated to the mayorship of the city, leaving her former Second Ward seat empty and the rest of the council split, 2-2. Under Eureka's (ahem) unique city charter, the mayor casts tie-breaking votes. So the con-mods are theoretically in charge; the progs are in the minority.

Prog maneuvers to capture the vacant Second Ward seat, and thus to tip the scales in their favor, have so far come up snake eyes. There was a push to hold a special election to fill the seat, but it failed, with Bass casting a tie-breaking con-mod vote in favor of appointment. (An election was deemed to be too time-consuming and costly.) Then, after aspiring appointees filled out their applications to be considered for the seat, there was a successful push to extend the deadline for such applications. However, no viable prog stepped forward. Then, civilian prog Neal Latt dropped a sort of bombshell into the proceedings - an analysis commissioned from a San Francisco law firm that argued that Mayor Bass could not legally vote on her own appointment to fill the former seat. Bass was undeterred; after appointing an all-star commission (which included prog representation) to interview potential appointees, she went ahead and appointed Endert.

And it appears that she was quite right. The Latt bombshell, though still ticking away, promises to be something of a dud, for three reasons. First, Eureka City Attorney Sheryl Schaffner makes a persuasive case against the San Francisco legal analysis. That analysis deeply scrutinized specific wording in the Eureka City Charter pertaining to appointments to the City Council - it says that such appointments must be approved by a "majority of the Council Members" (see "Town Dandy," Dec. 7). The San Francisco firm, citing non-binding precedents gathered from cases around the country, held that the language would bar the usual mayoral tie-breaking vote. But Schaffner came back with her own precedents, including a recent (2003) federal case from the 8th Circuit, arguing that it would do no such thing - if a charter gives a mayor tie-breaking power, according to the Schaffner analysis, then the mayor has tie-breaking power everywhere, except when the charter specifically denies it to her.

Second, it looks likely that the Council's prog faction, or at least some subsection thereof, will go ahead and embrace Endert, rendering the point moot. As the appointee was (is) on a family vacation in Washington, D.C., neither Councilmember Chris Kerrigan nor his colleague, Councilmember Larry Glass, have yet had a chance to talk with her personally (hence the delay to Thursday). But Kerrigan said that he is hopeful - for one, because he and his family go way back with Endert's family (the Macdonalds). "I'm optimistic that it will go well, and she'll hopefully make a good addition to the city council," Kerrigan said Tuesday. He knows Polly Endert in passing, he said, but looked forward to speaking with her in more detail about her reasons for wanting to serve.

Finally, Latt himself appears placated. "My feeling is, she was one of the better choices for V[irginia] B[ass] to make, and (amazingly) after the rhetoric was said and done, one of the best consensus' choices for the appointment," Latt wrote us in a New Year's Eve e-mail. "Probably not the most progressive of the 11, but certainly not the most conservative either. I plan to call Virginia and give her anattagirl' when the smoke clears (assuming Polly gets three or more votes on the 4th)."

There's one leftover beef to be had, though - on Tuesday, Larry Glass pronounced himself dissatisfied with the way the process has gone, to date. "All this talk about wanting to have consensus - I haven't seen really any attempt to reach consensus," he said. "There's been no conversation at all between the mayor and the council people, that I'm aware of." Glass said that he had hoped that the mayor, before making her choice, would have run a few of her top picks by council members to see if anyone had strong feelings one way or another. That didn't happen. Still, he said, he looked forward to talking with Endert on Thursday.

Ho, that's quite a little backlash brewing against the Times-Standard's recent homelessness series, in which obese reporters James Faulk and Chris Durant spent a few days living on the streets to see how it was done. First Glenn Franco Simmons, editor of the rival Eureka Reporter, turned up his nose at the T-S, claiming that the undercover nature of the experiment violated all sorts of professional codes of conduct. Now comes Humboldt County's only paid professional media scold - our very own Marcy Burstiner (Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Class of '89) - leveling essentially the same charge. The Fat Guys are in the fire.

However, the Town Dandy comes to praise these grotesque tub-o'-lards, not to bury them. Face it, pecksniffs - the Fat and Homeless series was the most gripping thing that has been published in either of the daily papers for some time. Readers were actually looking forward to the next installment. Think of that. Imagine a world in which daily newspapers are exciting, and not a tedious civic duty. Well, we don't have to imagine it. For one fleeting moment, there, we actually sort of lived it.

We'll concede one point. Yes, the series would have been even better had it included a little bit more on the actual, flesh-and-blood homeless people who live in our county. They all have fascinating stories, no doubt, and it would have been nice to hear them. It was a little unclear why our correspondents failed to tap this goldmine. On the one hand, it seems that they were a little bit freaked out by the people they were sent to interview. They often reported themselves as feeling "nervous" or "uncomfortable." But there may be another explanation, one that lies in the particulars of the cover story the intrepid reporters concocted for their subjects. Homeless folks may have their problems, but you'd have to be superhumanly dense to swallow the idea that these specimens were looking to hitchhike to Alaska to be homeless there. In December. If our boys were looking to gain street cred, they might as well have said that they were looking to hitchhike to Antarctica, or to the middle of the Sahara desert.

A tactical error, then. Was it, pace Simmons and Burstiner, an ethical one as well? We think not. The Times-Standard's justification for the subterfuge - that the story couldn't have been gotten if the reporters went as reporters - seems to us unanswerable. A small society based in large part on the breaking of laws (sleeping illegally, ingesting illegal substances) is not going to throw open its arms to welcome public attention. Still, this particular small society is something that all of us should know more about. Durant and Faulk's small first-person experiment at least showed us some of the challenges faced by people living on the street, and did so in fine prose.

It's obviously not desirable to have reporters consistently going around lying their heads off to everyone they meet, but we have to take issue with the high priests of the profession, as cited by Simmons and Burstiner. "Undercover is a method of the past," they say. Well, then Nellie Bly is a thing of the past, as are John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed. Are they? Maybe they are, maybe they are. If so, we are all the worse for it.

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