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Pomp and circumstance 

Congratulations to Humboldt State University's Class of 2007! Under soggy skies, about 2,500 of our best and brightest paraded the hell out of here on Saturday -- perhaps not a moment too soon.

Things are none too sunny for those who remain behind, as is well known. A couple of weeks ago, at a meeting of the Academic Senate, the most hopeful thing that University Provost Rick Vrem could think to say was that Humboldt State was at its lowest point. This from a man known for his collegial good cheer -- the message that considering how bad things are, they can only get better.

We've always been suspicious of the tendency to lay this sorry state of affairs squarely at the feet of HSU President Rollin Richmond. It seems to us that Richmond, in his five years at the helm of HSU, has taken a bad hand and played it remarkably well. He inherited a university that had languished for 30 years, at least if measured strictly by the number of students served. It was still recovering from the John Sterns scandal, in which a mendacious administrator was discovered to have been cooking the books on a shocking scale. He walked in to the deepest state budget crisis in history, a crisis that had inevitable repercussions on the state university system.

Now, through no fault of Richmond's that we can find, the university is at a financial nadir. Naturally things must change. Class sizes must increase and programs must be pared back or eliminated. These things are painful. But Richmond's long-term plan to right the ship has always seemed sound. In a word, he wants to market the university better to California's growing population of college-aged students, to show them the many unique things that HSU has to offer -- an ethos, as well as particular courses of study. Apparently it is working. More students will come next year than came the year before, and more came that year than the year before that.

But Richmond is certainly feeling the heat. The refreshing candor that once marked his administration is long gone. It's all but impossible to get either him or other top administrators to talk about university policy, or budget decisions. All of which is a long way of noting that Richmond signed a five-year contract when he was hired in 2002, and it's now 2007. Will he stay or will he go?


Despite all the turmoil at the university, academic life plods on as per usual. Or perhaps less ploddingly than is usual in other places. Humboldt State is a bit different from other universities, given the outsized role we ask it to play in our small community. Local governments, local businesses, local nonprofit organizations call upon the faculty to provide their expertise in all sorts of matters, and the faculty usually responds. This was the case even before President Richmond changed the rules of faculty promotion to mandate that the professoriat play an active role in their fields.

Case in point: Our very own Marcy Burstiner, whose investigative reporting class this week gives North Coast Journal readers a little slice o' life story about working class people in Fortuna and Arcata. When we first approached Burstiner with the idea of critiquing the local news scene -- what was to become our "Media Maven" column -- she whined and grumbled at the meager wages on offer. And so she has whined and grumbled every month since. But she has soldiered on nevertheless, and we are grateful. We do not know what role Richmond's directive has played in her thinking, and we do not want to know.

But look at the riches that have since showered down upon her! When "Media Maven" first debuted in these pages last November, reporters and editors on both sides of the Newspaper War took an instant dislike to her. "Predictable myopia ... self-appointed powers of journalistic expertise," huffed the Eureka Reporter's Nathan Rushton. "Ivory tower journalo-queen ... try typing words for a living," sneered the Times-Standard's James Faulk.

That was then, this is now. Is it coincidence that there has been a noticeable surge in stories on marijuana in recent weeks, right after the publication of her column lamenting the lack of such stories? It seems that in meeting the Burstiner challenge, local newspapers have adopted a different tack: the suck-up. Witness the Eureka Reporter's April 15 profile of Burstiner. It was quite a bit more upbeat than Rushton's earlier take.

And now, to mark her six-month passage from pariah to ultimate insider, Burstiner recently let slip that Reporter Editor Glenn Franco Simmons has invited her to critique the paper at one of its weekly editorial meetings. A date has not been nailed down, Burstiner said. She has to work around veteran newsman Dave Silverbrand, genial uncle to the local news industry; she said Silverbrand has already been booked for two Reporter critiques.

The lesson to take home is that writing for the Journal confers many benefits, not all of them monetary. The position confers prestige. Burstiner added that she's been invited to address the Rotary. We offered her our congratulations, and promised to plug the event. We asked: Which Rotary chapter is that? She paused.

"I only thought there was only one Rotary," she said.


And now comes word from Stephen A. Strawn, Humboldt County's treasurer and tax collector, that it's just about time for that annual farce known as the tax-delinquent property auction. Mark your calendars for Friday, June 8, 9 a.m. It'll take place in the board of supervisors chambers in the Humboldt County courthouse.

There'll be a number of properties up for auction this year (18, as of press time), and they're from all around the county: from Hydesville to Hoopa to Humboldt Hill. These are parcels that the county has foreclosed upon after the owners failed to pay their property taxes for a number of years. It's possible to get some good deals, if you know what you're doing. Minimum bids range from $3,000 to $20,000.

What makes it a farce? Well, as with previous years, the great bulk of the properties on offer are in the Shelter Cove area, and are completely useless and unbuildable, for various reasons. But there is a sparkling market for them nonetheless -- some out-of-town companies love to get title to such parcels so they can sell them off to unsuspecting customers at a high markup. (See our Emily Gurnon's cover story from a few years ago -- "Buyer Beware!" April 22, 2004 -- for a primer).

"They have been in recent years the highest bidders on the properties that seem to have the least value," said Strawn of such firms. "They seem pleased to be able to purchase whatever lots we have for sale, regardless of their condition. It appears to us that they are sold for a great deal more at open auctions in Southern California."

As Gurnon's story detailed, these phantom home sites lead a curious life. Someone from the city, dreaming of rural seaside bliss, will buy one of them on the Internet at what seems like a bargain price. Quickly they will discover that they will never, ever be able to build anything. The parcel languishes. Every year, the county comes back around to collect property taxes. The dreamer, embittered, eventually refuses to pay. The county forecloses and sells the parcel at the tax-delinquent property auction. An out-of-town real estate broker with elastic ethics purchases it and puts it on the Internet again, completing the cycle.

Strawn said that he's not certain, but he believes that at least one of the parcels on the block this year has been on the merry-go-round for a while. "You have to go back six or seven years to find it, but it is my understanding that one of those parcels has been sold previously, and I think more than once," he said.

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Hank Sims

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