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March 10, 2005

The Weekly Wrap

Roger Rodoni's FPPC file

Northcoast Auto to become Lithia


The Weekly Wrap

COX MAY LEAVE TOWN: Cox Communications announced Monday that it was looking at selling four of its cable systems, among them the one it operates in Humboldt County. In a press release, the company said that the sale was one of a number of avenues the company was exploring to reduce its corporate debt and become more competitive in a fierce business climate. Arcata City Manager Dan Hauser said that he wasn't surprised to hear of the sale; negotiations between Cox and a consortium of local governments over a new franchise agreement have been dragging on for almost two and a half years now. "There's been a tremendous amount of movement in the cable TV industry, with larger, regionalized companies," Hauser said. "Comcast has pretty well moved in both north and south of us, and I think there has been a lot of discussion about the possibility of Comcast taking over here."

HUMBOLDT DECLARED DISASTER AREA: Citing drought conditions last summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared Humboldt County an agricultural disaster area last week. According to Paul Holzberger, the county's acting agricultural commissioner, many ranchers in the south part of the county suffered financial losses from dry weather last year; many had to spend extra on feed or watering systems, and lost money when cattle came in underweight. Thanks to the declaration, these ranchers may now be eligible for low-interest loans from the federal government. Holzberger added that although "disaster" is a dramatic word, such declarations are not that uncommon in the agriculture industry. "I think statistics will show that about half the counties in the country will incur something like this every few years," he said.

STOEN APOLOGIZES TO REPORTER: Assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen made national headlines last week after writing a letter of apology to an old foe. In the early 1970s Lester Kinsolving was a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner on the trail of a hot story -- a bizarre cult group in Mendocino County called Peoples Temple. As a high-ranking member of the cult, Stoen organized pickets and filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the paper from publishing Kinsolving's critical articles. After learning that Kinsolving had recently suffered a heart attack, Stoen wrote a letter of condolence that praised the reporter's "insight and courage" 30 years ago: "You were right about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple," Stoen wrote. "I was totally wrong. If I had not been ideologically blinded by a Utopian worldview, I should have been open to the truth you were trying to tell." The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat quoted Kinsolving as being "deeply moved and very grateful" to receive the letter. (For more on Stoen and the Peoples Temple, see the Journal's cover story, "Standing in the Shadows of Jonestown," Sept. 25, 2003.)

HSU BIG PLAYER IN LOCAL ECONOMY: Humboldt State University contributes more than $200 million per year to the local economy, according to a report published last week by university President Rollin Richmond's office. The report, entitled "HSU Impact 2005," looks at a wide variety of economic contributions the university makes to Humboldt County, from direct payroll to student volunteerism to tourism associated with annual graduation ceremonies. "In human terms, HSU contributes enormously to the entrepreneurial spirit of the North Coast community," wrote Richmond in a press release. The report was coauthored by the university's economics department and the Center for Environmental Economic Development, an Arcata nonprofit.

GREYHOUND CUTS MORE STOPS: Beginning April 3, you won't be able to catch the dog in Garberville, Fortuna, Trinidad, Orick, Klamath or Crescent City. Greyhound Lines, Inc., will eliminate 64 stops in California -- cuts that are on top of the 269 locations eliminated last August. According to company spokeswoman Kim Plaskett, the changes were necessary because the previous route structure "was not an efficient, effective use of our resources." Most customers want faster trips with fewer stops, she said. Also eliminated will be Laytonville and Leggett in Mendocino County. Still on the route: stops in Eureka, Arcata and -- go figure -- Rio Dell.

BOUNTY HUNTERS RIG BARSTOW BUST: A Eureka couple was arrested on charges of child endangerment in Barstow Thursday after bounty hunters tracked them down to the San Bernardino County town. Michael Gerber, 34, was arrested last year in Eureka on narcotics charges. He skipped town after bailing out of jail on two separate bonds, each for $50,000. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Department located Gerber and Anne Walton, 26, at an I-15 rest stop outside the desert town after bounty hunters employed by Gerber's bail bondsman placed them in the area by following the charges on a stolen credit card he was allegedly using. The two were found to be in possession of a small amount of marijuana, heroin, 200 syringes and a toddler boy who had been abducted from the home of Walton's mother -- his legal guardian -- a few days earlier.

NEW BAY MANAGEMENT PLAN: The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District announced last week that it has completed work on a draft management plan that will guide future industrial, recreational and conservation activities on California's second-largest natural bay. The district will lead a public workshop on the draft plan at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 17, at the Woodley Island Marina Meeting Room. Copies of the plan are available at local libraries and on the Web at

Roger Rodoni's FPPC file


Investigators with the State Fair Political Practices Commission started asking for information on Supervisor Roger Rodoni's alleged conflict-of-interest regarding the Pacific Lumber Co. as early as November 2003, according to records in the commission's case file received in response to a Public Records Act request filed by the Journal.

In conducting its investigation, which lasted over a year, the commission gathered documents from the lumber company and from various county departments, interviewed local residents and conducted research on how ranch land leases are priced throughout the industry.

Early last month, the FPPC's Enforcement Division ruled that Rodoni's rental of a 9,000-acre Southern Humboldt ranch from Palco for $350 per month was, in fact, a fair price for that property, and so any votes concerning the company that Rodoni has made since being elected Second District Supervisor in 1996 did not violate California's good government laws.

"After reviewing and investigating the complaint, we found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that you received a discounted rate on the real property in question, and therefore we were unable to conclude that you received a gift," wrote William L. Williams, an Enforcement Division attorney, in a letter to Rodoni dated Feb. 8.

The FPPC investigation was sparked by citizen complaints following a Board of Supervisors meeting on March 11, 2003. In a hugely controversial decision, the board voted to deny District Attorney Paul Gallegos' request to hire a private law firm to assist in his office's fraud suit against Pacific Lumber. Rodoni joined a 4-1 majority that turned down Gallegos' request.

Citing an exception from California's Public Records Act, the commission did not provide a copy of its own investigator's analysis of Rodoni's case. However, the other materials included in the case file indicate that commission staff based their determination primarily, if not entirely, on the ranch's value as cattle pasture.

Katherine Ziemer, executive director of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, told FPPC investigator Dan Schek, "You could not pay me to live on that land," according to Schek's written report on their conversation. "There is no electric out there and I would have to drive two hours away to buy food." She said she believed Rodoni was more of a caretaker than a cattle rancher, and that his presence on the ranch benefits Pacific Lumber more than it benefits him.

Schek also interviewed Humboldt County rancher and ranch appraiser Wess Anderson. Anderson told the investigator that, based on his 18 years of appraising local ranch land, he believed that "Rodoni's land is of no value because it is shallow and has a low animal carrying capacity." He said it is "fairly reasonable" to believe that Rodoni has a fair market lease rate.

Beyond the interviews, the file contains several articles from universities across the country, such as South Dakota State University and Iowa State, on determining pasture rents. (The FPPC appears not to have tackled the question of whether Rodoni benefited from the land in other ways, such as being able to hunt and reside there part-time.)

Also included in the FPPC's file was a copy of the lease, which stipulates that Rodoni maintain the property by providing the labor to fix broken fences, among other things. And a memo to the FPPC from Susan Pryor of Palco states that Rodoni's lease actually ran out in April of 1996, and that he is now renting on a month-to-month basis.

Rodoni has maintained throughout the controversy that he was paying fair market value for the ranch land. Reached at his office earlier this week, Rodoni said the FPPC confirmed that. "Apparently, I was right."



North Coast Journal Editorial: Sept. 9, 2004

North Coast Journal Editorial: Feb. 19, 2004

North Coast Journal News: June 12, 2003: "To Shoot a boar..."

North Coast Journal Editorial: June 19, 2003

Fair Political Practices Commission website

Northcoast Auto to become Lithia


GARY BARKER'S NORTHCOAST AUTO DEALERSHIP, one of the three largest in the county, is being sold to Lithia Motors of Medford, Ore. Escrow is expected to close in mid-April.

"I'm retiring from the automobile business to become a full-time winemaker," Barker said in an interview Tuesday. "I'm going to build the winery, and the house I've been promising to build for my wife for the last eight years."

Barker, who has been starring in his own television commercials for the last 25 years, said the only thing that will change is the name and the sign on South Broadway in Eureka. He expects that most of the 60-some employees will remain.

"I wasn't really looking to sell, but the timing was right," he said. "[Lithia] is a great company and we really fit their profile. They like profitable stores in small communities with long-term relationships with employees." He declined to reveal the sale price.

Barker said his top management troika -- parts manager Mike Kubala, operations manager Kathy Hunter and sales manager Tim Call -- have worked with him for more than 20 years, as have many of the company's service technicians.

Lithia was founded in Ashland, Ore., in 1946 and moved its headquarters to Medford in 1970. Based on 2003 sales, Automotive News ranks Lithia as the eighth largest auto retailer in the nation with more than 90 dealerships in 13 states -- all west of the Mississippi River. The company went public in 1996.

"I really looked into [Lithia's] history and how they conduct themselves. They are very community oriented. They treat people well," Barker said. "We are a five-star store now and it will remain a five-star store." (The star rating is based on customer satisfaction surveys.)

Barker, 62, said he had to face the issue of succession sooner or later since there is no one in his family to take over. He has been making wine as a hobby for years and has a vineyard planted on property east of Willow Creek in Trinity County. His winery, Dogwood Estates Winery, one of about two dozen small wineries in Humboldt and Trinity counties, was bonded and licensed about six months ago.

Barker said his passion, however, will always be selling cars.

"I've sold maybe 15 to 18 cars to the same guy over the years -- sometimes three generations. They come back and buy for their wife and later for their kids. Those kids are now buying for their kids."

Barker began his career as a meatcutter at 18 in the Bay Area but switched to car sales at 31.

"I worked for Pat Patterson's Cadillac in Oakland selling used cars. I learned everything from Pat. He prided himself on the quality of his management staff and employees. You can't just go out and hire good staff. You have to build it."

He launched his own dealership, Eureka Toyota, with Robert Dias in 1980, and in 1983 they acquired Northwoods Chevrolet. The partnership was dissolved in 1990 (the Dias family still owns Northwoods) and Barker purchased Northcoast Volvo.

In 1993 he was the successful bidder in a bankruptcy sale of the John Ehert Dodge/Chrysler dealership and began building Northcoast Auto Inc. The company has grown from its original seven employees to 62 and sells more than 1,000 automobiles per year. In the number of cars sold per month, the dealership ranks behind Harper Motors, owned by Harvey Harper, and Mid City Motor World, owned by his son, Dan Harper.

The Harpers, along with Tony Ghera, owner of McCrea-Nissan, were in Sacramento Tuesday for the annual meeting of car dealers and legislators. Although unavailable for direct comment, Harvey Harper issued a statement through his office saying he welcomed the new owners of Northcoast Auto and "always enjoys the competition."


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