Humboldt County Airport Manager Jacquelyn Hulsey has been on administrative leave since early October -- with taxpayers supplying her $6,146-per-month salary -- and no one with the county will say why she was sidelined or when, if ever, she's expected to return.
Public Works Director Tom Mattson will say only that Hulsey remains on leave and that he and his deputy directors have taken over her responsibilities, with help from Emily Jacobs, program coordinator at the county's aviation division.
While the county remains silent, people who worked with Hulsey say her management style was characterized by obfuscation, lies and intimidation. Fortuna resident Ryan Tieck said that when he was an airport service worker at the Arcata-Eureka Airport -- from January 2008 through June 2009 -- Hulsey repeatedly ordered him to clean up a room where a boiler had been removed, leaving a powdery white substance behind.
"I told Jackie [Hulsey] personally, 'This is asbestos,'" Tieck recalled. "She literally told me, 'You don't know what you're talking about. Go clean it up.'" The first time Tieck spent more than a few minutes in the room he got a nosebleed, he said. Yet Hulsey continued to order him and other workers to deal with the powder, he said. When he asked his supervisors if they would file a complaint, "They said, 'Well, I don't want to make her [Hulsey] mad.' That's how they ran the place."
Finally, Tieck reported the mystery substance to his union, which contacted county officials, and an inspector was sent in. "After we found out it was confirmed to be asbestos, I had a panic attack and I cried in my union's office," Tieck said. "I sat there and sobbed because she'd done this to me so many times. She just told me I didn't know what I was talking about."
Tieck resigned in 2009. Public Works Director Mattson said the area has been sealed up and the county has agreed to pay for periodic health exams for Tieck and others who came into contact with the asbestos."They have yet to contact me," Tieck said.
In recent years, Hulsey's job performance has been criticized publicly as well, especially following a miscommunication she had with an airport service worker on the night of March 1, 2009, when a small airplane crashed into the ocean off the coast of Trinidad. This miscommunication delayed search-and-rescue efforts for more than 12 hours, and while debris from the plane eventually washed ashore, the bodies of the two men who'd been on board were never recovered ("The Plane That Wasn't There," Dec. 17, 2009).
Why would the county pay Hulsey more than $15,000 (and counting) to stay home? Calls and emails to Hulsey herself were not returned. Hoping her employment contract might supply some answers, the Journal called County Personnel Director Dan Fulks, who said there was just one problem with that question: "She actually doesn't have an employment contract."
It turns out this is not uncommon for government workers in California. And yet, such employees still can't be fired without cause. That's because of a 1975 California Supreme Court ruling in Skelly versus the State Personnel Board, which gave public employees the right to due process before being fired. "Part of that due process is an investigation," Fulks said. If the investigation finds cause for dismissal, then the firing process can proceed. If no such cause is found, the employee can return to his or her job with no adverse effects.
Is Hulsey currently being investigated? "That I can't answer," Fulks said.
The Journal hasn't been alone in its curiosity. Dax Williamson, who publicly resigned as chairman of the county's Aviation Advisory Committee in September 2010, citing Hulsey's indifference to the committee's advice, said he's been looking for answers, too. "And everybody is tight-lipped," he said. "Nobody wants to talk about it."
Williamson described Hulsey as "ineffective" and accused her of withholding information from the committee and even lying on several occasions. For example, he said the committee had long advocated for allowing pilots to remotely activate runway lights on the lesser-used 1/19 cross runway at the Arcata-Eureka Airport. Hulsey repeatedly claimed those lights didn't work, Williamson said. In 2010, Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors toured the airport. "When I went out with them that night, they turned the crossing runway lights on and they worked," Williamson said.
Shortly thereafter, Williamson resigned from his volunteer position on the committee alongside fellow member Bill Davidson, who is equally critical of Hulsey. "She was so unwilling to listen to anything, we just never could get anything done," he said in a phone interview last week.
The new chair of the advisory committee is Gregg Foster, who, as executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Commission, had been working with Hulsey and others to bring more flights to the Arcata-Eureka Airport. Foster had been chair of the committee for roughly seven months when Hulsey was placed on leave. At the following meeting, he said, Mattsen attended in Hulsey's stead and started talking about a $327,000 airplane hangar fund -- a fund that no one in the room had heard about before.
"Certainly the advisory board should be aware of this information," Foster said. "I don't know why they weren't, especially when we were talking all along about hangars." (Mattson said the fund information was available all along on the county's website.)
Foster was critical of Hulsey's budget management skills too, saying she made plans and hired engineers to build new hangars at the Arcata-Eureka Airport without first calculating the total cost. When Foster himself was brought in to do the math, he figured out that in order to finance the debt on the project, the county would need to charge pilots a monthly lease fee of $500 per hangar. In a survey, however, area pilots said they wouldn't pay nearly that much.
"I put my lender's hat on and said, 'Nobody's willing to pay what your project costs, so you better go back to the drawing board,'" Foster recalled. Mattson said the project is now being reexamined.
He wouldn't say whether Hulsey will return to her duties as airport manager. But Foster, for one, seems ready to move on. "I'm a lot more optimistic about the future than I have been," he said. Mattson and his staff "have been providing us with a lot more information, being a lot more cooperative."