North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

March 21, 2002

Lettergate at HSU?

Nurses vote to unionize

Tree-sitting season begins

Infected wood quarantine

New HSU president promises better communication

Female Elk takes charge

Attn: prospective homebuyers

New manager for Ferndale

Sunbridge to offer classes

Senior directory available

Lettergate at HSU?

Did outgoing Humboldt State University President Alistair McCrone deliberately delay informing rank-and-file employees that they had the right to comment on how they were affected by the embezzlement scandal that rocked the university last year -- or was it simply an oversight?

Either way, McCrone is declining to comment.

The Humboldt County Probation Department had been ordered by Judge John Feeney to prepare a pre-sentencing report for a March 12 court date. Usually such a report is ordered by the court after a person is convicted or pleads guilty in order to assist the court in how severe the punishment should be. In this case the judge ordered the report early because there are indications that the defendant, former top administrator John Sterns, is willing to change his plea to guilty and make full restitution to HSU. With the report in hand, the judge could immediately impose a sentence.

In order to prepare the report, deputy probation officer Angie Circe sent a form and letter to the university asking for input "from anyone who was administratively, professionally, financially, psychologically or otherwise personally affected by Sterns' activities." She said such a letter was standard in cases like this one.

"The input has been characterized as `What would you tell a judge if you had five minutes to speak,'" said HSU spokesperson Sean Kearns. The information becomes part of the public record and is viewable for 60 days after sentencing.

Circe said she called McCrone's office and his secretary told her to send the letter and form first to the university police. Police Chief Bob Forster said the request was presented to the president's office for an official university response, according to Kearns.

University officials declined to confirm the date the president's office received the request, citing the confidentiality of probation documents. However on March 4 Circe apparently became concerned and called Sgt. Tom Dewey of the university police department, who was in charge of the investigation, to ask why she had not received a single letter from anyone at HSU regarding how they were affected by the actions of Sterns. Sterns, who was director of university advancement, allegedly embezzled $48,000 and caused another $80,000 in direct damages to the university, according to the latest figures.

"[Circe] said in a case this large, surely she would have heard from some people," Dewey said.

Her call prompted Dewey to contact HSU employees directly whom he thought might want to comment -- the only problem was that by that time they had less than two days to do so.

Pamela Allen, director of alumni relations from 1987 until she resigned last month, wrote to the court that, "John Sterns' actions shattered my 14-year career at Humboldt State University and severely disrupted my personal life."

Allen is one of several whistleblowers who worked behind the scenes to unmask Sterns' activities.

Allen said in a telephone interview last week from her new job at Cal Poly Pomona that punishment for her whistleblowing continued after Sterns' departure in March of last year. She was one of three finalists for a position last year, but she was passed over by her supervisor, Vice President Don Christensen, in favor of someone less qualified.

Christensen, who retired March 1, was criticized for his lack of oversight of Sterns in the CSU Chancellor Office's special audit last year. (See "The case against John Sterns and HSU," Aug. 16,)

Like Allen, other HSU employees wrote letters to the court at the 11th hour.

While declining to comment on exactly how long the request was on McCrone's desk, spokesman Kearns said, "We are duty-bound to allow the process to be handled in the courts. We are taking the process very seriously and contributing where appropriate. ... The university has responded."

On a separate front, HSU administrators forwarded to the Chancellor's Office last month a "Final Report on the Implementation and Recommendations" of the CSU audit that is "not quite final," according to Kearns.

The university has reinstituted many of the basic accounting controls dismantled by Sterns during his three-year tenure, including requiring two signatures to transfer funds from one trust account to another and having all expense reports approved by an employee's supervisor.

Still needing more work are the university's proposals regarding the reporting of fund-raising efforts, and oversight and control of the university advancement funds.

The audit also directs HSU to have an operating agreement through the university or the HSU Foundation with the campus radio station, KHSU. University athletics donations will now be required to be channeled through the university as well. And HSU officials are proposing the establishment of a "gift processing center" to track all university donations and pledges.

According to the 2001 CSU audit, Sterns was reimbursed for phony travel and entertainment costs, charged personal items to a credit card, falsified records of $15 million in gifts, pledges and bequests to the university, drained and closed trusts accounts, and prepared fraudulent financial statements for KHSU.

His next court appearance is April 4.

-- reported by Judy Hodgson

Nurses vote to unionize

Nurses at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka voted resoundingly for union representation at their March 15 election.

The vote -- 86 percent in favor of unionization with a turnout of more than 90 percent -- means that the hospital's registered nurses will be represented by the California Nurses Association, the largest nurses' union in the state.

The campaign was marked by accusations that management had violated the National Labor Relations Act, first by removing pro-union campaign literature from bulletin boards and then by asking nurses how they planned to vote. Neither alleged violation was reported to the National Labor Relations Board as a formal complaint.

The animosity did not stop after the election. In a press release, St. Joseph Humboldt County CEO MIke Purvis said that "having a third party that doesn't share our vision and values" would make running the hospital more difficult.

Sister Ann McGuinn of the Sisters of Orange, which owns the hospital, said that the CNA's campaign had been "extremely divisive and negative."

For its part, the CNA rebuked St. Joseph for hiring the Burke Group, a management consulting firm, to help run the anti-union campaign. The union estimated in a press release that the hospital had paid the group $1.2 million.

The next step will be for management and the union to meet to discuss a contract. Liz Jacobs, spokesperson for the CNA, said that would happen within the next month.

Tree-sitting season begins

With the buzz of chainsaws likely still months away, Earth First! environmental activists have already taken to the trees to protest planned logging operations on Pacific Lumber Co. land.

"We have six (trees) occupied 24 hours a day right now," said an Earth First! activist who called himself Shunka. "There are nine or 10 people up right now."

The tree-sitters are attempting to stop three state-approved timber harvest plans -- two near Grizzly Creek State Park, along Highway 36, and one in the Freshwater watershed. Harvesting has yet to begin on any of the three.

Shunka said he believed his Earth First! comrades may have had something to do with that. "We've been holding them off," he said. "Technically they could start any time they wanted."

But the logging company tells a different story.

"We're not operating in there because of seasonal roads" that cannot legally be used during the wet winter, spokeswoman Mary Bullwinkel said. She said harvesting isn't likely to start for until the summer.

Launching tree-sits months in advance of logging marks a change in strategy for Earth First! Last summer, activists tried to stop the harvest of old-growth Douglas fir in the Mattole watershed primarily by blockading access roads (See "Standoff in the Mattole," May 31 2001).

"There were zero trees saved during that campaign," said an Earth First! activist calling herself Remedy. "We've learned from our mistakes."

Bullwinkel said the company was aware of the tree-sitters but had not yet made contact with them.

"At this point, it's not a problem," she said. "We're not active there."

In the meantime, the company is weighing its options. "We're looking at ways to get the folks out of the trees and off our property," she said. She declined to specify what sort of methods are being considered.

Infected wood quarantine

Seeking to slow the spread of a fungus that threatens many of California's oaks, the federal government has announced it will impose a quarantine on certain wood products believed to carry the disease.

Sudden Oak Death -- or Phytophthora ramorum -- kills oaks by destroying the trees' cambium, the layer of living tissue just under the bark. While it kills mostly oaks, it can be carried by a wide variety of plants, including rhododendrons, bay laurels, madrone and big-leaf maples.

The most frightening aspect of the disease for this area is new research showing that it may be carried by redwoods. Scientists have stressed that it is too soon to draw any definite conclusions about redwood's susceptibility, but the fungus has been found in redwood sprouts.

Even so, the initial effect of the quarantine on Humboldt County is likely to be slight. The new restriction prohibits the export of possibly infected plant material from affected counties, and the disease has yet to be found here.

But it has spread as far North as Mendocino County and may well cross over into Humboldt, said Bill Jones, silviculturist for Six River National Forest. The impacts could be significant.

"If we get the disease in the county, some material would not be transportable without going through certain steps; firewood would probably have to have its bark removed, for instance," Jones said. He said the specific restrictions and start time for the quarantine have yet to be hammered out.

The silver lining for Humboldt's timber industry is that milled lumber would not be affected. The fungus does not infect wood, just the soft outer layers of trees, so the finished product would present no danger.

There's just one hitch, Jones said: transporting the logs from forest to sawmill. "Lumber would not be an issue. It's getting the trees to the mill that might be a problem."

New HSU president promises better communication

Rollin Richmond, named last week to the presidency at Humboldt State University, is promising to build on the university's academic and social strengths while opening the door to better communication with faculty, students and the community.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Richmond said he would keep an open mind about the controversial Behavioral and Social Sciences building project in Arcata.

"I would like to review all the options and I would not exclude any possibility in the future for dealing with that building," he said. This is a departure from previous pronouncements by university officials, who have vigorously defended the project.

The city of Arcata -- which has filed a lawsuit against the university over the building -- maintains that it would be a blight on the landscape and is being constructed with outdated environmental review documents.

The differences between the university and the city over the project "should have been solved a long time ago in conversations," Richmond said at a question-and-answer session at the university last month prior to being named president.

"You should never get to the point where the city is suing the university over placement of a facility on campus," he added.

Richmond promised to be much more involved in the details of fundraising and administration. Last year it came to light that a high-ranking administrator, John Sterns, had allegedly committed embezzlement and misrepresented fund-raising monies.

"The president has to pay pretty close attention to what's happening in development and fundraising. I want to make sure everything is aboveboard," Richmond said.

While working for more openness, Richmond said he would also try and keep the qualities that make Humboldt State unique -- in particular, the school's emphasis on social and environmental justice.

During last month's question-and-answer session, Richmond said he was attracted to the "community of faculty, students and staff who are engaged in the issues of our time.

"You are having important conversations, both within the university and within the community, about where you are going and what you are doing, what the role and significance of government is, what the role of the university is. All of those things appeal to me.

"As an individual, I'm very much interested in the world of ideas. I like to grow personally and I think I would grow here."

Female Elk takes charge

Women may make up less than 5 percent of the membership of Eureka Elk Lodge 652, but that didn't stop one female member from rising to the top.

"Well, first I was nominated as a Loyal Knight. Then last year I became a Leading Knight," said Mary Lou Riley, a 67-year-old retired credit manager. In February Riley received an honor from her fellow Eureka Elks that no woman in the lodge had ever received before: she was elected Exalted Ruler.

Riley's election means she will serve the organization's 600-plus members as president for the next year. She said she initially met some resistance from the old-timers in the predominately male organization. "There were the usual two or three, but eventually they accepted me and encouraged me," she said.

Perhaps it helps that her husband, Bud Riley, has been an Elk for 50 years. Or maybe they were impressed by her goal for the next year: "I'm going to try for a 50 percent increase in membership," she said.

The charitable group gives scholarships to prospective college students, sponsors a Boy Scout troop and a Little League team and provides an opportunity to socialize with other civic-minded individuals.

Attn: prospective homebuyers

People living in unincorporated areas of Humboldt County who haven't been able to afford a down payment for a home now have an opportunity to help themselves.

The Humboldt County Economic Development Division is collecting names of would-be homeowners to demonstrate to the state the need for a down payment assistance program.

"Many of the cities in Humboldt County have homebuyer assistance programs but the county does not," said Paula Mushrush, Humboldt County's rural development coordinator. "We need to demonstrate that we have people (who are) interested."

The goal is to attract funding from the state-administered Community Development Block Grant program to establish a revolving low-interest loan program.

New manager for Ferndale

When Michael Bommer took over as city manager in Ferndale March 1, he came into a new position -- Ferndale had been getting along without a city manager.

Bommer, who comes from a position as the general manager for the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District, said he was attracted to the city by its physical beauty.

"I love the Victorian theme of this city and all I want to do is enhance it," he said.

He has his share of challenges ahead. Ferndale was served with a notice of intent to sue by the environmental group Riverwatch Jan 10. Riverwatch has taken several North Coast cities to court over wastewater violations.

Bommer said that his goals for the city include establishing better financial control and having city staff rather than outside civic engineers complete minor engineering projects.

Sunbridge to offer classes

Sunbridge Healthcare, which has been cited for multiple violations connected to understaffing at its Eureka nursing homes, is working with Humboldt County to train certified nurse assistants for employment.

Sunbridge owns all four skilled nursing facilities in Eureka: Pacific, Grenada, Seaview and Sunbridge Care and Rehabilitation. All four have come under fire from state regulators for the low-quality care they provide to seniors (see "Nursing home neglect," Nov. 9, 2000).

The New Mexico-based company, which grew to become California's largest provider of nursing home care in the 1990s, has complained that a shortage of skilled nursing staff is to blame for low staff-to-patient ratios.

The new program, funded through a state grant and administered as a joint effort with the Humboldt County Office of Education, provides a salary and uniform to students as they work they way through the curriculum. According to a Sunbridge press release, 45 certified nurse assistants have already graduated from the program.

Call 444-9640 for more information.

Senior directory available

The Area Agency on Aging has published a Senior Information Directory listing programs and services that help seniors with financial matters, nursing care, fitness and volunteer opportunities. Also listed are senior-friendly businesses and tips on navigating tasks like hiring a caretaker.

To pick up a copy of the free directory, drop by your nearest senior center or call 442-9591.



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