March 10, 2005
COX MAY LEAVE TOWN: Cox Communications announced Monday that it was
looking at selling four of its cable systems, among them the
one it operates in Humboldt County. In a press release, the company
said that the sale was one of a number of avenues the company
was exploring to reduce its corporate debt and become more competitive
in a fierce business climate. Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser
said that he wasn't surprised to hear of the sale; negotiations
between Cox and a consortium of local governments over a new
franchise agreement have been dragging on for almost two and
a half years now. "There's been a tremendous amount of movement
in the cable TV industry, with larger, regionalized companies,"
Hauser said. "Comcast has pretty well moved in both north
and south of us, and I think there has been a lot of discussion
about the possibility of Comcast taking over here."
by EMILY GURNON
Investigators with the State Fair Political Practices Commission started asking for information on Supervisor Roger Rodoni's alleged conflict-of-interest regarding the Pacific Lumber Co. as early as November 2003, according to records in the commission's case file received in response to a Public Records Act request filed by the Journal.
In conducting its investigation, which lasted over a year, the commission gathered documents from the lumber company and from various county departments, interviewed local residents and conducted research on how ranch land leases are priced throughout the industry.
Early last month, the FPPC's Enforcement Division ruled that Rodoni's rental of a 9,000-acre Southern Humboldt ranch from Palco for $350 per month was, in fact, a fair price for that property, and so any votes concerning the company that Rodoni has made since being elected Second District Supervisor in 1996 did not violate California's good government laws.
"After reviewing and investigating the complaint, we found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that you received a discounted rate on the real property in question, and therefore we were unable to conclude that you received a gift," wrote William L. Williams, an Enforcement Division attorney, in a letter to Rodoni dated Feb. 8.
The FPPC investigation was sparked by citizen complaints following a Board of Supervisors meeting on March 11, 2003. In a hugely controversial decision, the board voted to deny District Attorney Paul Gallegos' request to hire a private law firm to assist in his office's fraud suit against Pacific Lumber. Rodoni joined a 4-1 majority that turned down Gallegos' request.
Citing an exception from California's Public Records Act, the commission did not provide a copy of its own investigator's analysis of Rodoni's case. However, the other materials included in the case file indicate that commission staff based their determination primarily, if not entirely, on the ranch's value as cattle pasture.
Katherine Ziemer, executive director of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, told FPPC investigator Dan Schek, "You could not pay me to live on that land," according to Schek's written report on their conversation. "There is no electric out there and I would have to drive two hours away to buy food." She said she believed Rodoni was more of a caretaker than a cattle rancher, and that his presence on the ranch benefits Pacific Lumber more than it benefits him.
Schek also interviewed Humboldt County rancher and ranch appraiser Wess Anderson. Anderson told the investigator that, based on his 18 years of appraising local ranch land, he believed that "Rodoni's land is of no value because it is shallow and has a low animal carrying capacity." He said it is "fairly reasonable" to believe that Rodoni has a fair market lease rate.
Beyond the interviews, the file contains several articles from universities across the country, such as South Dakota State University and Iowa State, on determining pasture rents. (The FPPC appears not to have tackled the question of whether Rodoni benefited from the land in other ways, such as being able to hunt and reside there part-time.)
Also included in the FPPC's file was a copy of the lease, which stipulates that Rodoni maintain the property by providing the labor to fix broken fences, among other things. And a memo to the FPPC from Susan Pryor of Palco states that Rodoni's lease actually ran out in April of 1996, and that he is now renting on a month-to-month basis.
Rodoni has maintained throughout the controversy that he was paying fair market value for the ranch land. Reached at his office earlier this week, Rodoni said the FPPC confirmed that. "Apparently, I was right."
by JUDY HODGSON
GARY BARKER'S NORTHCOAST AUTO DEALERSHIP, one of the three largest in the county, is being sold to Lithia Motors of Medford, Ore. Escrow is expected to close in mid-April.
"I'm retiring from the automobile business to become a full-time winemaker," Barker said in an interview Tuesday. "I'm going to build the winery, and the house I've been promising to build for my wife for the last eight years."
Barker, who has been starring in his own television commercials for the last 25 years, said the only thing that will change is the name and the sign on South Broadway in Eureka. He expects that most of the 60-some employees will remain.
"I wasn't really looking to sell, but the timing was right," he said. "[Lithia] is a great company and we really fit their profile. They like profitable stores in small communities with long-term relationships with employees." He declined to reveal the sale price.
Barker said his top management troika -- parts manager Mike Kubala, operations manager Kathy Hunter and sales manager Tim Call -- have worked with him for more than 20 years, as have many of the company's service technicians.
Lithia was founded in Ashland, Ore., in 1946 and moved its headquarters to Medford in 1970. Based on 2003 sales, Automotive News ranks Lithia as the eighth largest auto retailer in the nation with more than 90 dealerships in 13 states -- all west of the Mississippi River. The company went public in 1996.
"I really looked into [Lithia's] history and how they conduct themselves. They are very community oriented. They treat people well," Barker said. "We are a five-star store now and it will remain a five-star store." (The star rating is based on customer satisfaction surveys.)
Barker, 62, said he had to face the issue of succession sooner or later since there is no one in his family to take over. He has been making wine as a hobby for years and has a vineyard planted on property east of Willow Creek in Trinity County. His winery, Dogwood Estates Winery, one of about two dozen small wineries in Humboldt and Trinity counties, was bonded and licensed about six months ago.
Barker said his passion, however, will always be selling cars.
"I've sold maybe 15 to 18 cars to the same guy over the years -- sometimes three generations. They come back and buy for their wife and later for their kids. Those kids are now buying for their kids."
Barker began his career as a meatcutter at 18 in the Bay Area but switched to car sales at 31.
"I worked for Pat Patterson's Cadillac in Oakland selling used cars. I learned everything from Pat. He prided himself on the quality of his management staff and employees. You can't just go out and hire good staff. You have to build it."
He launched his own dealership, Eureka Toyota, with Robert Dias in 1980, and in 1983 they acquired Northwoods Chevrolet. The partnership was dissolved in 1990 (the Dias family still owns Northwoods) and Barker purchased Northcoast Volvo.
In 1993 he was the successful bidder in a bankruptcy sale of the John Ehert Dodge/Chrysler dealership and began building Northcoast Auto Inc. The company has grown from its original seven employees to 62 and sells more than 1,000 automobiles per year. In the number of cars sold per month, the dealership ranks behind Harper Motors, owned by Harvey Harper, and Mid City Motor World, owned by his son, Dan Harper.
The Harpers, along with Tony Ghera, owner of McCrea-Nissan, were in Sacramento Tuesday for the annual meeting of car dealers and legislators. Although unavailable for direct comment, Harvey Harper issued a statement through his office saying he welcomed the new owners of Northcoast Auto and "always enjoys the competition."
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