June 17, 2004
REAGAN AND THE
SCHOOLS: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
caught some local school districts off guard last week when he
declared Friday a statewide "day of remembrance" honoring
President Ronald Reagan. It turns out that non-salaried employees
of some local school districts -- such as clerical staff, bus
drivers and teachers' aides -- retain an arcane clause in their
contracts that entitles them to overtime pay if they are forced
to work on such days. As Friday was also the last day of school
in many areas, administrators were stuck with a last-minute overtime
bill on the last day of the school year. Rick Fauss, superintendent
of the South Bay Union Elementary School District, said that
Schwarzenegger's declaration would have cost the tiny district
$3,000 it could ill afford -- had he not been able to strike
a deal with the California School Employees Association. Instead
of overtime pay, South Bay employees will get an extra day off
in the upcoming school year. The Arcata Elementary School District
was also affected by the declaration, but Superintendent Steve
Kelish could not be reached by press time.
A coalition of environmental groups wants the California Transportation Commission to deny the city of Eureka's request for $550,000 in additional funds to finish the next phase of the Waterfront Drive Extension Project.
In a June 8 letter, the groups, which include the Environmental Protection Information Center, the local chapter of the Sierra Club and the Northcoast Environmental Center, say the project conflicts with the city's long-delayed effort to restore the Eureka Marsh behind the Bayshore Mall as a functioning wetland.
"Building a highway bypass through the Eureka Marsh would certainly interfere with public use of the property, wildlife habitat values and other public trust doctrines associated with public open space in the coastal zone," the letter said.
The 1.7-mile extension is designed to relieve congestion on Highway 101.
City Engineer Brent Siemer denied that the road project would conflict with the marsh restoration. "It's an existing transportation corridor that was used for decades by rail."
Since 1985, the California Coastal Conservancy has given the city $1.5 million to purchase and restore the land, which includes a 39-acre tract known as the Palco marsh and adjacent lands. In all, the city has bought 113 acres, including marshland both east and west of the railroad tracks that run along that part of Humboldt Bay.
The project has been plagued by a host of delays, not least of which was the discovery of a pocket of pollution that took years to clean up.
The Coastal Conservancy is holding one of its regularly scheduled public meetings in Eureka on June 30, and environmentalists said they would bring up the issue raised in the letter.
by HANK SIMS
Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos last week fired Allison Jackson, one of the office's senior prosecutors -- and there are indications that more changes in the staff could be looming.
In late April, the office placed two help wanted advertisements with the California District Attorneys' Association. The ads stated that Humboldt County is seeking to recruit both experienced attorneys and "newly minted" ones.
The ads also appeared on a Web site run by the Christian Legal Society, an organization dedicated to "identify, equip and mobilize a national grassroots network of lawyers and law students committed to proclaiming, loving and serving Jesus Christ, through all we do in the practice of law," according to the site. Assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen is a member of the society.
Reached at his office Monday, Gallegos said that when the ads were placed he was uncertain what his budget for the upcoming year would be. He said that the office was looking at letting some senior deputies go and filling their positions with junior prosecutors, who would receive less salary, in order to save money. At the end of May, the county approved a budget for the office that was designed to cover the salaries of all the deputies currently on staff.
The help-wanted advertisements are still active, though, and Gallegos declined to state whether any other firings were in the offing. When asked whether he felt he had to find new, loyal deputies in the wake of the recall attempt, Gallegos was dismissive.
"I shouldn't," he said. "It's been my office for a year and a half. It wasn't not my office a month ago.
Nevertheless -- and without mentioning Jackson or any other current deputy DA by name -- Gallegos said that sometimes, when organizations change leadership, there can be irreconcilable philosophical differences between the staff and the new management.
"Sometimes there are just changes because people don't like where the office is going," he said. "They're not ready to go along; they're not up for those changes."
Jackson, 45, who had worked in the office 10 years and specialized in crimes against children, declined to comment on her dismissal when reached at her home Monday. Gallegos also declined comment, calling it a "personnel matter."
Deputy Greg Pope of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office worked with Jackson on the Child Abuse Service Team (CAST), a multi-agency task force that interviews children who are the victims of or witnesses to serious crimes. Pope said that it would be difficult to find a replacement who could fill Jackson's shoes.
"She was a tremendous asset to CAST, and just great to work with," Pope said. "Her knowledge and compassion for the victims were a great benefit for the county."
In the last six years, Jackson has prosecuted at least five cases of sexual abuse against minors that resulted in life sentences for the offenders. One of those offenders, Michael Hiscox, was given a sentence of 150 years to life earlier this year.
Jackson was also the original prosecutor assigned to the case of Pedro Martinez-Hernandez, a Fernbridge man arrested in late 2003 and charged with abusing his own daughter over a period of several years. Gallegos took over the case, which became controversial after he allowed the suspect to plead guilty to a single count that carried a 16-year sentence.
Gallegos said that now, in the wake of Jackson's dismissal, he is planning to hire two entry-level prosecutors. He said he had a deep pool to choose from, as a number of people sent their resumes in response to the classified advertisements.
"A lot of people want to come work for the office, from all over the place," he said.
by EMILY GURNON
The line of bidders stretched out the door of the County Supervisors' chamber last Wednesday morning as Tax Collector Stephen Strawn prepared to announce the opening of the county's annual auction of tax-delinquent properties.
A whopping 140 people registered to bid, some traveling from as far as Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento. As the bidders, clutching their red-numbered bidding cards, crammed into the room, Strawn announced that the auction would have to be held in a more spacious location next year "for obvious reasons."
The auction's popularity is reflected not only in the growing numbers of bidders but in the money people are willing to plunk down for the properties -- parcels that, in the case of Shelter Cove, are often unbuildable (see the Journal story "Buyer Beware," April 22).
"We're getting higher bids, definitely," Strawn said. "We used to get $300 and $500 bids, maybe two years ago," and some properties would attract no bids at all, he said. This year, the winning bids ranged from $4,700 to $41,000. In all, the county raked in $207,200 for 17 parcels -- 15 of which were in Shelter Cove.
The hot real estate market in general is responsible for renewed interest in Shelter Cove, Strawn said. The original list of county auction properties included 34 additional parcels, 12 in Shelter Cove, which were redeemed before they hit the auction block, meaning the back taxes were paid. In some cases, a private auction company approached owners of Shelter Cove lots and offered to buy them for a small sum.
The county, like others throughout the state, is required by law to auction off properties that fall five years behind in property taxes. But it is not required to give bidders a whole lot of information about the parcels.
"This is not a normal real estate transaction," Strawn warned the crowd during his introductory remarks. "Don't expect to have all the [disclosures] that would protect you. What we're selling today is simply all the rights of the former owner."
Is it on top of an earthquake fault? The tax collector doesn't have to say. Would a structure have to be built to withstand 110 mph winds? The county won't tell you. Can you actually put a house on that residential-zoned lot? You won't find out at the auction.
The bottom line: If you don't want to buy a "pig in a poke," you'd better do your research first, Strawn said. "If you bid and we take your money, it will never be returned." The savvy ones in the audience laughed.
Strawn knows all too well what he's selling. Though he told a reporter he did not go to Shelter Cove to inspect this year's offerings, he has made the trip in the past. In many cases, "It's land that is of little value," he said recently.
A good many of Shelter Cove's 4,200 lots -- about 17 percent, in fact -- are assessed at less than $2,000, which makes them exempt from property taxes levied by the county. But they are still subject to fees and assessments by the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District, the public agency that provides water, sewer, recreation and fire protection for the local residents. Those who live in Shelter Cove's 450 homes, then, reap the benefit of the assessments paid by people all over the country -- even overseas -- who may not even know their land is virtually worthless.
"A lot of the lots drop off exactly like this, 200, 300, 1,000 feet down," said David Halbrook, 70, sweeping his hand vertically as if down a sheer slope. The Shelter Cove resident, a retired accountant and real estate broker, came to Wednesday's auction and bought two lots -- the only ones he said were worth anything. "Some of these [parcels], I was just amazed at what they went for," he said. "One was just air space."
One Sunnyvale woman said she found out after she paid her $5,300 winning bid that her new lot was probably unbuildable. A former software engineer who's trying her hand at real estate investing, Julia Lin said a "professional bidder" gave her the bad news after the auction. "But he said, `You can still resell.' That kind of put me at ease," she said.
And the cycle continues.
Later this month, on June 26, Talcon Corp. is holding an auction of some 70 Shelter Cove properties in Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa. Talcon -- an offshoot of one of the original Shelter Cove developers' companies, according to Strawn -- seems to be ramping up its advertising this year: Many Humboldt County residents received notices in the mail last week about its auction.
And a frequent Internet seller of Shelter Cove lots was represented at the county auction by Paul Sabesky. Sabesky of Finance All, a Kern County firm, spent $19,700 last week to add four lots to the 29 Shelter Cove properties the company already owns.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.