North Coast Journal banner

Sept. 9, 2004


A familiar story


An elected council member is accused of trying to "help" a project working its way through the city's burdensome permitting process by lobbying staff or commissioners directly on behalf of a developer -- the same city council member who nominates and votes on commission appointments and approves the employment of key staff members, who in turn hire their own staff.

Hmmm. It sounded familiar. Oh, yes. It was our cover story in September 1990, only it was the city of Eureka, not Fortuna.

Last week I reread that story, written by Bill Israel, a former free-lance writer who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts. What the public had known were pieces of the big story, enough to decide they were fed up with improprieties by council members and they wanted a major course change. (Two council members, Ed Davenport and Tom Hannah, were defeated by a margin of more than 2-to-1. A third, Jim Howard, was trounced along with four other men in the race for mayor by newcomer Nancy Flemming.)

What Bill did in his 1990 story was trace the history of the conflict. He conducted background interviews with people, many who feared losing their jobs. He researched obscure "council contact" forms, traced leaked memos, and looked at several previous recall efforts that had failed. Then he wrote the big picture story and it was right on. (There were also a few white hats in that particular drama: certainly the late Mayor Fred Moore -- who, when informed of the goings-on, told City Attorney David Prendergast, "Just do your job," even if it meant investigating two of his own bosses -- and Prendergast, who did in fact lose his job. Former City Manager David Tooley was also fired along the way.)

Notice I use the word "improprieties" and not illegalities, since no one was ever convicted of anything. And notice that in this year's Humboldt County Grand Jury Report under a section called, "The Absence of Ethics Codes in Humboldt County," there is discussion of a concept known as the "appearance [or perception] of impropriety" which is "not a phrase lacking in legal significance. It appears more than a hundred times in the reported cases of the California Courts of Appeal and Supreme Court, in Opinions of the California Attorney General, and even in the Code of Judicial Ethics."

What the Grand Jury found was that the county and most cities do not have an ethics code and that Fortuna's "Rules of Conduct" and Arcata's "Code of Ethics" are inadequate. The jurors researched and recommended examples of well written codes that are in use in other counties. The Grand Jury report cited two examples of why these codes are needed.

One, of course, is Supervisor Roger Rodoni's dilemma, whether or not he should vote on matters before the county involving his landlord, Pacific Lumber Co. (We have editorialized that in fact, he should not, but in late July he did it again. [Links to editorials below] ) This issue is not resolved. It is still a matter before the Fair Political Practices Commission.

The second item cited in the Grand Jury report resulted in charges against Fortuna City Council member Debi August, the subject of our cover story this week.

As readers will learn from our coverage, this story was made possible because of the work and persistence of Journal Editor Emily Gurnon and staff writer Hank Sims to unseal the August file, which should have been open to the public 10 days after it was filed with the court back in May.

We would like to take this opportunity to commend the good work performed by this year's Grand Jury and we look forward to the responses from the county and the cities regarding its recommendations.


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

Humboldt County Grand Jury website

Fair Political Practices Commission website



North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.