Editor and Publisher
In April 15 I lost my temper.
It didn't have anything to do with the IRS.
Two weeks earlier Supervisor Paul Kirk was explaining in an interview his reasons for asking County Administrative Officer Chris Arnold, and Planning Department Director Tom Conlon, to resign.
We asked the question: What is the direction of this new board majority? Specifically, what are the plans for the Planning Department?
Kirk said that the board was very close to reaching a decision on an acting planning director. "We have a plan. The very thoughts of all five supervisors have been rolled into three closed sessions" and that when they named this person, we would understand. It was not a decision made in haste, he said. In fact, the board sought the advice of not only staff but people "from the outside -- the public."
Who were these outsiders? Kirk said the chairman of the Planning Review Committee, businessman Tom Sutton, was invited but could not attend. Instead, the board heard from a committee alternate member, contractor Tom Dinsmore.
The state's Brown Act specifically prohibits public boards from holding semi-closed meetings -- inviting some members of the public but not others. It also prohibits such matters as discussion of future direction of the board, abstract discussion of workload or how a search for a replacement to fill a vacancy will take place. It prohibits action or even discussion of compensation.
The board may have violated the Brown Act a number of times, but certainly at the meeting with Dinsmore in attendance April 3. (County staff are allowed in closed personnel sessions but advisory committee members are not staff under the law.)
We lodged an oral complaint with County Counsel Tamara Falor and acting CAO John Murray. Then on April 15 during the morning break at the supervisors' meeting, I spoke with Falor again, telling her we would be hand-delivering a letter to the board that day asking for what's known in legalese as a "cure and correction." In plain talk, the board made a mistake and to fix it, we asked that it reveal to the public everything that happened in that session.
With that information, the board quickly retreated into yet another closed session, came out, and hired an acting planning director, former county attorney Steve Nielson. Taking action on information gathered improperly is also prohibited under the Brown Act, according to a spokesperson for the California First Amendment Coalition.
We returned that afternoon with our letter of protest, which the board referred to an outside attorney for an opinion. The matter is still unresolved as we go to press with this May edition.
Why does it matter?
The Brown Act is California's version of the so-called "sunshine laws" which since the 1960s have changed the way government operates. The sunshine laws allow citizens -- including reporters -- the right to know almost everything about how government spends our money.
By granting privileged access to one person -- who represented a building-industry viewpoint on problems in the Planning Department -- the board effectively denied access to the rest of us.
Why do we want this information about what happened in that closed session? Well, if this new board majority is taking the county in a bold new direction based in part on these closed sessions, the public has a right to know. The board's state of mind goes to the heart of our story.
Denied that information, we began elsewhere. By interviewing Arnold and four other former Humboldt County administrative officers, we learned that they shared many of the same frustrations. Then we interviewed Conlon and other planners, builders, developers, gravel operators, all five supervisors and the acting CAO, many county department heads, accountants outside government and a few former grand jury members. In all, more than 30 interviews resulted in a stack of transcripts four inches thick.
What triggered our interest in this story was not the ouster of Arnold. (She was leaving anyway, and both friends and foes said it was time.) We knew a bigger shift in power was occurring when we heard about Conlon. We just didn't know why.
If you have read this far and have not read the cover story and its companion piece on the planning department, "Trouble on H Street," please do so first. Because what follows are my personal thoughts.
First, whatever motivated Kirk -- either the frustration of sitting for two years on a board mired in problems, as he says, or simply his desire to be reelected next year -- he was wrong to act unilaterally. That's what closed personnel sessions are for. He could have asked for one, heard what his fellow supervisors had to say and then acted.
Second, as noted in the cover story, while it may be desirable for the board to send budget responsibility back to the departments, there are potential dangers. The county's outside auditor, John Goff, said someone needs to constantly monitor the overall budget, interpret the information for the board and suggest course corrections. Auditor Neil Prince's department has resumed the responsibility for budget preparation, data entry and tracking, but interpreting the information and reporting to the board is traditionally the CAO's job.
And if the board is decentralizing authority, there is an even greater need for regular evaluations of appointed department heads. Certainly the supervisors cannot tell the sheriff, and other elected department heads, they want him to do a better job -- that's up to the voters. But there are other county departments that need periodic review besides the planning department. If not the CAO, where will this review get accomplished?
Finally, the urge to pick a scapegoat when something goes wrong is very strong in county government. Jail Phase I came in over budget and Jail Phase II is projected to be about $350,000 over, too. Who's fault is it? The public should not accept the simple answer, "We were not getting good numbers from the CAO."
On construction this size, who was the project manager? Was it the contractor? The CAO? Or, as Administrative Services Director Lindsey McWilliams said, "Everyone and no one"?
The board should have put Public Works in charge from the beginning. Why didn't they?
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