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Sept. 18, 2003


Laurel Tree School forced to move
Fire marshal finds code violations

Trash vigilantes


SHENANIGANS? Proponents of the recall of District Attorney Paul Gallegos have improperly gathered signatures for the effort, according to a complaint forwarded to the Secretary of State's office by Humboldt County election officials.

State law requires that petitions be personally circulated and that whoever circulates them must witness the writing of the signatures.

That's not happening, said Jim Ferguson, a Shelter Cove antiques dealer who filed the complaint. "From the very beginnings of the recall process, there were stories of petitions left on counters of local businesses unattended," he said, "many times when the persons circulating the petitions were not even at work."

At the V&N Burger Bar in Arcata on Monday, a customer who asked for a petition was handed one from a shelf and given an opportunity to sign, while the staff tended to the grill.

Rick Ciaramella of the Secretary of State's election fraud unit would neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is underway.

If there is, the findings could come long after a recall election takes place, said county elections chief Lindsey McWilliams.

HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION: The Fortuna fire that killed a 4-month-old boy and injured his 17-month-old brother on Aug. 30 is being investigated as a homicide, the Sheriff's Office said. As of press time, detectives had not yet made any arrests.

PSST! WANNA BUY A THEATER? A 1,000-seat Victorian masterpiece in the heart of Eureka, fully restored with state-of-the-art acoustics and wide, comfy seats. The price? Free!

What's the catch? You have to have the organization, skills and resources to run it without additional support, and that's a challenge for any live theater or performing arts group. (Ticket sales usually account for only 60 percent of the cost to operate live theater.) Philanthropists Rob and Cherie Arkley, who own the historic Sweasey/State Theater on G Street, are ready with the financing for the complete rehab, but are still searching for a not-for-profit operator to run the place. Their developer, Kurt Kramer, recently traveled to Florida for a meeting of the Legion of Historic American Theaters and said his fellow conventioneers were "green with jealousy" that he has rehab money in hand. But he estimates it will take $200,000 a year to "keep the lights and heat on." So far he's talking with Humboldt State University and the Southern Oregon-based Jefferson Public Radio, currently restoring a historic theater in Redding. Not-too-interested is HSU's CenterArts, since it enjoys the almost-rent-free Van Duzer Theatre on campus.

Meanwhile, the proposed Redwood Capital Bank, which will occupy space adjacent to the Sweasey Theater on the corner of Fifth, is completing its facade work (by Greg Pierson Co.) in the next few weeks while its directors wait for their charter approval from the Department of Financial Institutions, a state agency.

DRIVERS' LICENSE OK: Undocumented workers will be allowed to obtain a California drivers' license come January, due to a bill hurriedly signed by Gov. Gray Davis is his quest for Latino support. Eureka-based El Heraldo Publisher Santiago Cruz warned that the new licenses are not to be confused with California's recognition of Mexican national ID cards, a bill that has yet to find its way to the governor's desk. "Many were worried about false IDs, but the Mexican government bought new equipment used by the FBI. They would be more secure than [the state's] drivers' licenses," he added.

EUREKA INN PAYS UP: John Biord, the owner of the cash-strapped Eureka Inn, paid the $117,000 he owed to the city of Eureka in transient occupancy tax, one day before his scheduled arraignment last week on the felony charge of misappropriating the funds. Assistant DA Tim Stoen said the charge still stands, however, since "restitution is not a defense." If it were, "then anybody could just cancel out their crime if they're well-to-do."

FREQUENT LIAR MILES? We've long admired the Johnny-on-the-spot crime reporting of the Times-Standard's Chris Durant, but one has to wonder if he hasn't taken things a bit far lately. Let a suspect in a Humboldt County crime be found one afternoon in some far-flung corner of the nation, and there is Durant in next morning's T-S, dateline Tennessee, Texas or Las Vegas, interviewing neighbors and talking shop with the local cops. How, exactly, did Durant get himself across the country and file his story in the space of a few hours? Times-Standard editor Charles Winkler is surely aware that dateline fabrication played a major role in the recent New York Times scandals, which led to the ouster of the most powerful newspaper editor in the country.

Laurel Tree School forced to move
Fire marshal finds code violations


Three weeks into the school year, Laurel Tree Charter School of Bayside was forced to abruptly close its doors on Friday after the fire marshal found "life safety violations" in the 1903 building.

Parents were informed when they picked their children up on Friday that the school would not be open on Monday and would have to relocate. After a frantic search, officials found a new location over the weekend and reopened the K-1 class, a Spanish immersion program, on Tuesday. The other grades, five through 12, were expected to start again later this week.

"I have a signed lease in my hand, which is a miracle in itself," said Brenda Sutter, director of Laurel Tree, which has 50 students. "We took about two hours to be totally devastated, and then we said, OK, get in the car, we gotta find a site."

Fire Marshal Ralph Altizer of the Arcata Fire District said Sutter called him on the first day of school to schedule the inspection.

"I'm in a difficult position then," he said. "I have to tell them they can't be in the building. [There were] too many violations, too much in the way of life safety."

For example, the large wood structure -- which used to house the old Jacoby Creek school -- needed a sprinkler system and an alarm system, since the K-1 classroom was housed on the upper floor, Altizer said.

"The procedures weren't followed early enough," the fire marshal said. "This is happening with a lot of charter schools. They don't understand that they are still under the same requirements for building and fire as any other school."

In addition, the building had been renovated over the summer to make room for the new K-1 program, but the work was done without permits, he said.

Sutter said she was aware that the landlord was doing the work without permits, but had no control over it. Instead, she brought in other construction professionals to check on it, she said.

As for the timing of the fire inspection, it couldn't be scheduled sooner, Sutter said.

"We worked until the last minute to get the space finished. It wasn't until the space was finished that we could call him in and check the work. As soon as that was done, I called him in," she said.

Sutter said she was not sure whether or not she had called the fire marshal for an inspection last year, when the fifth- through 12th-graders were housed in the building.

Richard Graey, superintendent of the Mattole Unified School District, which operates the Laurel Tree charter, said he had told Sutter he would not sign a lease for the old building until the renovation issues were worked out and the site was inspected. The lease was not signed.

Parents of Laurel Tree students praised school officials for dealing promptly with the crisis and finding a new site, located on Spear Avenue in Arcata -- former home to Pacific View charter school and Uniontown Kids daycare. Many participated in weekend meetings to decide what to do.

They said the experience had brought them closer together.

"I hope the beauty in this is brought out more than the concerns that someone was negligent," said Kelly Gaudin, whose daughter attends kindergarten at Laurel Tree. "If anything, it's a study of a community of people coming together. The school wasn't stopped in its tracks."

Trash vigilantes


They're mad as heck and they aren't going to take it anymore.

About 60 Fieldbrook residents, including a self-proclaimed redneck plumber and a Birkenstock-shod retired university professor, gathered Saturday at the Fieldbrook Grange to share ideas on how to put a halt to trash dumping and vehicle abandonment along Fieldbrook Road.

Don Garlick, a Humboldt State University professor, offered a $1,000 reward for the conviction of the first culprit. Jim Scherer, the plumbing contractor who organized the meeting, proposed an aggressive neighborhood-watch system. Anybody who spots new trash, vehicles parked in favorite dump spots or other suspicious activity will be asked to call a pager number and leave a message. Whoever has the pager will investigate and notify county officials.

"The idea is to find out who's doing it, investigate and see if we can't get these people prosecuted," Scherer said.

A recently dumped car on Railroad Grade off Murray Road "had the last seven registration cards in the glove box," Scherer said. An abandoned refrigerator and several sacks of garbage recently appeared on Fieldbrook Road near the top of the hill. One sack contained a name tag from a local retail store that read, "Hi! My name is ..."

"How hard can it be to track these people?" Scherer said.

Neighbors with pickups and leather gloves are also planning a road cleanup day Oct. 18 for the entire 10-mile stretch of Fieldbrook Road, from Central Avenue along Murray Road in McKinleyville to Highway 299.

Fifth District Supervisor Jill Geist, who was at the meeting along with a sheriff's deputy and an environmental health officer, told the group she and Supervisor Jimmy Smith represent districts with the most severe trash-dumping problems in the cash-strapped county. She said conviction of trash dumping carries a fine, but they recently discovered there is no county ordinance addressing abandoned vehicles.

"We intend to close that loophole soon," she said.

The county receives some money from the state's abandoned vehicle fee program -- about $44,000 last year -- to tag cars, notify owners if they can be found and tow the cars to auto dismantlers. It's enough to fund an investigator just two days a week.

That investigator, Wally Williams, said he's spread too thin trying to tag abandoned vehicles on beaches, roadways, rivers and parks. There's no time left to go after the perpetrators with prosecution in mind. He traces the last registered owner through the Department of Motor Vehicles, notifies them by mail and has the wrecks hauled off.

"That's all I have time for," he said.

What angers residents is how long that process takes. One abandoned car on Fieldbrook Road near Grassy Creek had been there for more than six months. The car was finally towed Friday to an auto wrecker, less than 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Williams said, "The truth is, the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

Hodgson has more than a passing interest in this story. She lives on Fieldbrook Road and will be contributing to the cleanup effort next month.




North Coast Journal Weekly

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