June 9, 2005
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the yellow brick road
by JUDY HODGSON
I LOVE THE SCENE IN THE WIZARD
OF OZ where the curtain is ripped back and the wizard turns
out to be just a gray-haired guy with an inflated notion of self-importance.
As we go to press Tuesday, the
Samoa Cookhouse is preparing for the Taxpayers League monthly
lunch gathering tomorrow at 11:45 a.m. The manager better be
ordering extra vittles, because there's going to be a crowd.
Not the usual eight or 10 who show up other months, but an angry
group of Taxpayers League members and other community leaders
who want answers.
Now we may actually learn who
is really behind the curtain called the Taxpayers League lawsuit
that put the brakes on two waterfront developments -- developments
that have been in the works since 1995 and 2001.
First, a taxpayers league is
a good idea. We all can use a watchdog group to sniff around
and ferret out wasteful government spending. Generally we can
count on them to oppose new taxes, or taxes disguised as fees,
and that's not necessarily a bad thing either.
Second, just for a moment let's
assume the assertions in this lawsuit are correct because they
may well be: (1) That two members of the Redevelopment Advisory
Board in Eureka, Delores Vellutini and Glenn Goldan, who both
have been on the RAB board since 1994, subsequently came up with
waterfront projects they promised to build if the city sold them
property at a certain price (Vellutini in 1995 and Goldan in
2001). (2) That RAB's track record as an advisory board shows
most of its recommendations -- 48 of 50 -- are approved by the
Redevelopment Agency/City Council. However, (3) even though the
two developers did not participate in any discussions related
to nor did they vote on their own projects, they still had an
inherent conflict of interest and the projects should be voided.
The legal nut of this lawsuit
is a California code that says, "when one makes recommendations
that are routinely followed, one is treated as the contracting
party for the purpose of conflict of interest laws ."
My question is, where has the
league been for 10 years?
All the progress to date, remember,
has come with transparency of public scrutiny. There have been
unlimited opportunities to comment. I am more familiar with the
Vellutini project, which is finally set to break ground in the
fall. In all those public meetings on this project, which we've
written about several times, where are the letters of protest
from the Taxpayers League saying, "Hey, maybe Delores shouldn't
be on the RAB board at all because she has a project?" I
remember Delores purposely not attending some meetings because
the RAB was working on how the city might help get that particular
blighted property back on to the tax rolls. And I know that when
the C Street hotel project fell apart and the RAB board began
to develop a new request for proposal, Glenn said he could not
participate even in the planning because there was a chance he
might want to submit a project someday.
Here is what we do know about
the Taxpayers League: It has undergone a transformation recently,
and not for the good. For instance, we just learned (as of noon
on Tuesday) that the league board of directors revised
its bylaws a few years back and neglected to tell its
own members or even to post the new bylaws on its website. The
old bylaws were still posted -- and presumed valid -- on Tuesday
What is missing from the new
bylaws? Section 3, which reads: "The league shall work constructively
with public officials in overcoming difficulties rather than
censure them for mistakes."
So, the league shall no longer
work constructively with public officials and others? "Let's
just surprise them with a lawsuit when those developers are ready
to break ground!"
Last year this same board decided
to let itself be used to run a "No on Measure L" campaign
that was ultimately successful. Maybe Measure L should have been
defeated anyway. Maybe it was a tax on the poor, an angle to
the story that was overlooked. But league directors repeatedly
stonewalled requests for information about who was responsible
for paying for the $22,800 media blitz that helped defeat Measure
L, they neglected to file proper state reports in a timely manner
and then, we believe, they knowingly misrepresented facts in
The amount -- $22,800 to defeat
Measure L -- was the largest single item in the league's annual
budget of $24,312 -- not exactly hard-to-trace petty cash for
even the most casual of bookkeepers. But in a Nov. 15, 2004 filing
of California Form 460, League Executive Director Judy Billingsly
wrote: "We have no formal accounting system or separate
accounts that would allow for the tracking of individual dues
or donations, and no way of tying individual moneys to the Vote
L No campaign.
Really? I hope the board of
directors, who voted to approve Billingsly's statement before
she filed it, did not perjure themselves. The case before the
state Fair Political Practices Commission is still open and unresolved.
Here is what we have learned
since the beginning of the year regarding the defeated Measure
L: One member of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce admitted that
he and others were directly solicited to contribute to the No
on Measure L and to write checks to the Taxpayers League. His
advice to me was, "follow the money." Who would be
hurt by an increase in sales tax? Who sells big ticket items?
Car dealers? So I went to Gary Barker (Northcoast Auto) and here
is what he said on March 8:
"Hell yes. I gave them
$1,000. It [Measure L] was a negative thing for this county.
It's a harvest on the poor and they don't need another tax. We
have families living on $25,000 a year here in Humboldt. They've
got rent, basic necessities, utilities, household stuff -- and
they [the government] want $600 more from them when they have
to replace their car?"
He was on the record. So was
Harvey Harper (Harper Motors) who told me he worries that our
elected officials, with very few exceptions, do not come from
a business background. "It's not that they are antibusiness.
They're just all pretty liberal and not too interested in business.
We can't all live on grants. You have to generate taxes."
Harvey said he not only gave $14,000 to the No on L campaign,
he made quite a few phone calls personally.
You may not agree with these
two men, but they acted honorably and admitted their involvement.
Other as-yet unnamed donors brought the amount up to $22,800.
My point is, by checking their
deposits, I'm sure the league directors can provide us with the
names of the others who contributed directly to defeat Measure
L. It's time for honesty and transparency in our 401(C)4 nonprofits
as well as government.
As to the lawsuit, does this
really boil down to just a few disgruntled directors (one of
them, President Leo Sears) who don't believe in redevelopment?
If that's the case, it's also time for the league members to
take back their organization from the few who have abused their
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