North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

December 13, 2001

St. Joseph charge nurses resign

DA draws a challenger

Fish ladder for Freshwater:
Can a group of Humboldt State University students save the Freshwater swimming hole? A federal fisheries biologist warns "It's not going to be easy."

Crabs in time for Christmas

PL loggers, truckers may go

Can we dodge the bullet?

Co-op hires interim manager

McKinleyville's champion

$1 milion for coastal ranch

Booster seats or else

County bed tax illegal?

Eel River Mill buyout?

"Doc" Ball dead at 94

Test elected Arcata Mayor

St. Joseph charge nurses resign

Citing an attempt to exclude them from an impending union election at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka, several registered nurses have taken a pay cut and resigned from their positions as charge nurses.

St. Joseph announced Dec. 3 that the nurses' job description was changed to make them part of management. The change, which would exclude them from collective bargaining, follows the Nov. 17 announcement that the California Nurse Association will try to organize nurses working for the hospital.

In response, 16 of the 17 charge nurses in critical care resigned to assume regular staff positions Dec. 4.

Charge nurses are responsible for assigning beds and nurses to patients, ensuring that emergency equipment is readied and generally directing patient care. By giving up those responsibilities, the nurses accepted a 10 percent pay cut.

"You have to make sure everything runs smoothly," said Mary Bustamante, who was a charge nurse in the intensive care unit.

"They say we would be in a supervisory position of hiring, firing and disciplining people. But that's just not our role," she said. Bustamante said that the change to management was totally artificial -- jobs that were the responsibility of the unit director were simply given to the charge nurses.

It's not an unusual strategy for hospitals facing nurse unionization, said Liz Jacobs of the CNA. "It's purely an attempt to diminish the power and strength of the bargaining unit and divide and conquer."

Jacobs said St. Joseph has hired the Burke Group, a consulting firm that specializes in helping hospitals avoid unionization. Reclassifying charge nurses as management is "a common tactic" recommended by Burke, she said.

The charge nurses' resignation takes effect Dec. 17. Bustamante said that it was "not yet clear who will take over as the charge nurses" but that she would be willing to continue performing most of the responsibilities involved with the job -- as long as she retains her right to vote in the union election.

"The pay cut doesn't matter," she said. "What I need is some concrete leadership and someone watching my back."

DA draws a challenger

Eureka attorney Paul Gallegos announced this week he will run against incumbent Terry Farmer for the office of district attorney.

Gallegos, whose practice handles criminal defense and civil litigation, said there were several reasons for his decision to run against Farmer.

"A significant amount of our efforts are involved in nonviolent crime, but there are more important things to do," Gallegos said. Cases involving nonviolent crime, especially marijuana enforcement, have swamped the court system. "It's difficult to get a case to trial. Our system is full."

"This is going to be interesting," said Farmer, who has served as Humboldt's DA for 16 years. "Last time I read the penal code, possession of marijuana under circumstances other than that of medical necessity was against the law. We have an obligation to enforce that."

This is the first time Farmer has faced a challenger since 1994.

Fishladder for Freshwater

EILEEN CASHMAN IS PROUD OF THE STUDENTS in her HSU environmental engineering class. They are hard at work designing a solution to a real world problem: how to keep the county's Freshwater pool recreational facility from harming juvenile salmon.

The swimming spot wasn't filled this year because of concerns that the dam used to create the pool was preventing juvenile coho salmon and steelhead from swimming upstream.

[photo of prototype fish ladder]A prototype fish ladder designed by HSU students to allow fish upstream passage over the Freshwater Dam

Cashman's students are designing a fish ladder that would allow upstream passage over the dam. There are only two problems: It's a very hard job that has to be completed within a very short time.

"It's not going to be easy," said Dan Free, fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's mainly the eight-foot height of the dam. The water velocities through the ladder need to be such that juveniles can pass, and the energy from that eight-foot dam to the level of the stream is substantial."

Free's skepticism casts doubt on the project: It was NMFS biologists who nixed the Freshwater dam's installation this summer, and it is these same biologists who must be convinced that the ladder allows fish to travel upstream.

What's more, the design must be completed soon in order to work its way through the regulatory process in time for next year's swimming season. "That process would need to begin very soon," he said.

Cashman thinks her students are capable of completing the design in a hurry -- in fact, their academic success depends on it.

"They need to be finished with their designs by the end of the semester," she said. "I think for a project of this size, it's a reasonable time frame and the county would really like to put it in next year."

One reason for Cashman's confidence is that the planned ladder would be only a temporary structure. "My understanding is that what the students come up with is just going to be a prototype." The structure would be installed, studied and replaced with an improved design later.

A prototype project could help increase the understanding of a field about which little is known.

So little information on juvenile fish passage is available that it is unclear whether the dam is even harming fish. It's true that the dam stops fish from travelling upstream -- but no one knows if juvenile fish need to travel upstream.

The real question is "whether there are fish that would like to redistribute [to travel] upstream ... whether that's biologically important," said Terry Roloefs, a fisheries biology professor at HSU

Until the evidence shows fish don't need to travel upstream, NMFS will assume they do and in order for the dam to be installed "we would need to see passage for the fish," Free said.

Even if the fish ladder works, the dam would still have problems.

"When they fill the pool they block off 80 percent of the flow and only leave 20 percent in the river for the downstream fish. To me, that's inadequate," Free said.

Roloefs said he was not hugely worried about "partially dewatering the stream." He pointed out that Clone Gulch, one of the main tributaries of the Freshwater Creek, enters the stream just 400 feet below the dam.

Then again, it is not Roloefs who must be convinced, it is NMFS. Free said the end result might be that the dam -- and fish ladder -- only get installed during wet years, when the 20 percent that is allowed to flow downstream would be sufficient for fish to survive.

"We may get this ladder but still have conditions where it would be inappropriate to put the dam in," he said.

Crabs in time for Christmas

Humboldt gourmands can breathe a sigh of relief. The county's crab fishermen and a seafood buyer reached a settlement Dec. 10 that allowed them to start harvesting.

The crab season officially started Dec. 1, but fishermen had refused to go out until negotiations over price were completed.

"They wanted $1.75 a pound, and we came back with $1.40," said Rick Harris of Pacific Choice Seafoods, a large buyer of crabs from the North Coast. "It settled at $1.60."

Harris said he hoped that demand for the crabs would stay strong. "My fear is that the price is too high. If the crab prices are too high, crab will be a one-time buy," he said. With most of California in the grips of a recession, his biggest market has just gone soft.

"In this economy, people are not spending money on luxury food items," he said. "After the holidays, the interest in crab products may dry up."

PL loggers, truckers may go

Pacific Lumber has announced to its loggers and truck drivers that it is trying to find them new jobs as part of a reorganization plan.

The Scotia-based timber company maintains in-house harvesting and trucking crews, but according to a letter sent to employees last week, it has proven more efficient to farm those activities out to contractors. PL will try to see if those contractors will absorb its entire trucking and logging operations, including both employees and equipment.

Just two weeks ago PL closed the doors at Mill A, putting 140 people out of work. Both moves are part of a company-wide reorganization, spurred by losses of more than $200 million over the last three years.

The company claims that the financial losses have been caused by a habitat conservation plan agreed to as part of the 1999 Headwaters Agreement, but a soft market for lumber products has caused a downturn across the industry.

Can we dodge the bullet?

The Redwood Curtain is turning out to be at a barrier against the recession -- at least a temporary one. That's the picture suggested by the latest Index of Economic Activity for Humboldt County, published monthly at Humboldt State University.

Several sectors of Humboldt's showed strong growth during October, the last month for which data are available. Home sales, retail sales, tourism and manufacturing activity all increased. And that success is home-grown: There are signs that the Humboldt economy is doing better than the rest of the nation.

"We're doing better than lots of other people in the country are," said Professor Steve Hackett, executive director of the Index. "It's a pleasant surprise."

Most pleasant for Humboldt is the job market. The latest figures from the federal government show a national unemployment rate of 5.7, up about 50 percent from just a year ago. In Humboldt County, unemployment has actually dropped since last year to just 4.7 percent.

But the future may not be so rosy, Hackett said.

"The leading indicators are all pointing in one direction. We may see be seeing a bit of a decline in the next few months." While lumber manufacturing has suffered from weak prices, things could get much worse if the housing construction activity were to fall off.

"Part of why we are doing OK is that there is still some sort of a market for lumber," he said. The recent termination of 140 employees from Pacific Lumber's Mill A facility in Scotia also has yet to be taken into account in the most recent Index.

And part of the reason for the low unemployment rate is an out-migration of workers. The population of people who either work or are looking for a job in Humboldt County dropped by 500 over the last year. While that out-migration may not show up as a shocking statistic, in human terms it is very important.

"It creates a lot of dislocation for people who may not have wanted to leave," Hackett said.

Co-op hires interim manager

What would it take to make a successful financial consultant and 17-year veteran of Wall Street manage a grocery store?

"Love," said Patrick Cleary, the new interim general manager of the North Coast Co-op. "I've always loved the Co-op."

It certainly isn't money. Cleary, who moved to Humboldt County from New York in 1999, said he is now making less than he has since 1984. But he always had a soft spot in his heart for the Co-op and found it "hard to turn down" an offer to take over the reins for a while.

Cleary replaces John Corbett, who announced his retirement earlier this year. Corbett is running for 5th District supervisor and was recently appointed to the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The new job is only temporary, Cleary said. "Having me allows us to do a search for a permanent manager at a deliberate pace," he said. There will be an excellent opportunity next May, when the Consumer Cooperative Marketing Association has its annual meeting in Arcata.

"In the long term, we will want someone who has grocery store experience," Cleary said. "That's not me."

It's the second highly visible appointment in a month for Cleary. He has also just accepted a position as president of the Humboldt Folklife Society. After all, he said, "I didn't really come to Humboldt County to work. I came to play guitar."

McKinleyville's champion

McKinleyville residents may not know it, but they have a fast-talking champion in their midst. Bonnie Vukonich won the California Auctioneer Championships in Sacramento Nov. 16.

"We had an interview with four judges, and they asked us some questions and rated how we looked them in the eye," she said. Then came the fun part -- the contestants had to sell three items they had never seen before. "One of them was, well, I don't know what. Some kind of knife, I guess," Vukonich said. Although she never figured out what to call the item, she did a great job of selling it and was rewarded with the championship.

Vukonich, who runs an auctioning and appraisal company with her son, will represent California at the national championships in Orlando, Fla., in July. Her hope is that there will be valuable items to sell.

"It's much more fun when you get it into the hundreds," she said. "They just roll off the tongue more easily."

$1 million for coastal ranch

Another piece of undeveloped coastline was added to public ownership Dec. 6 when the California Coastal Conservancy voted to contribute $1 million to the purchase of the Barri Ranch.

The 200-acre property, located next to the former Centerville Naval Station, will be bought and transferred to the federal Bureau of Land Management. Cattle grazing will continue on the property, but will be limited to protect the land's streams.

The defunct naval base is also slated to become BLM property. An adjoining property, the Lost Coast Ranch, has already been purchased for BLM administration.

Booster seats or else

Here's a great Christmas idea for your parenting friends: Get them a new booster seat. Not only will you be protecting a child's safety -- you might also save the parents a ticket.

After Jan. 1 booster seats will be required for all children under 60 pounds in size or 6 years of age.

The new "6 or 60" booster seat law complements the current "4 and 40" law that requires children to be in car seats until they are 4 years old and weigh 40 pounds.

For more information on the new law or how to tell if your child has outgrown his or her car seat, call the county's Public Health Branch at 268-2148.

County bed tax illegal?

For the last three years, Humboldt County may have been collecting too much bed tax -- and may be required to collect less in the future to compensate.

A series of court battles over the legality of a 1986 law has left the county in the dark about whether it will lose $140,000 a year, $280,000 a year or no money at all.

At issue is the Transient Occupancy Tax or bed tax. The county tacks 10 percent on to any hotel bill in its jurisdiction. Until 1993, the rate was only 8 percent.

The increase was enacted without voter approval -- as would seem to be required by Proposition 62. So the county began diverting the 2 percent into a trust fund.

In 1998 an appellate court ruled that a three-year statute of limitations applied to tax raises. Safely outside that time frame, the county declared the coast clear and began spending the money in the trust fund.

The county may yet regret that decision. The California Supreme Court ruled in June that the statute of limitations begins every time the tax is collected and sent the case back to the appellate court for a ruling on its merits.

That means the county may be liable for the tax it collected in the last three years. "The assumption we are working on is that we have a three-year exposure," said Karen Suiker, assistant county administrative officer. The board of supervisors decided Nov. 13 that until a court ruling clears the issue, the money will again be put into a trust fund.

If the county did collect too much tax, it may simply have to stop collecting the tax until it can get voter approval. That move would put a $140,000 hole in the budget. But the county might be required to compensate by reducing the amount it collects in the future to just 6 percent -- a $240,000 reduction.

It might all sound like peanuts in a county budget of almost $200 million, Suiker said, but the loss is significant.

"It is discretionary money, and that's what we're lacking the most. There's a potential for a stiff impact," she said.

Eel River mill buyout?

The financially troubled Eel River Sawmills may yet escape closure and bankruptcy through a proposed buyout deal. The Mel McLean Family Trust, which owns the majority of the stock in the mill, is entertaining two offers to buy out its share of the company.

One of those offers comes from Englewood Forest Products, an anonymous group of investors. Bob Eckart, Englewood's spokesman, said the group is proposing to "cash out" the trust.

But money is only one part of the Englewood deal, Eckart said. Another main condition of the deal is that four employees who are suing Eel River's management drop their lawsuit. The employees allege that the company's management has driven Eel River into the ground and defrauded the employees of stock ownership.

The suit names managers Dennis Scott and Gene Lucas, both of whom are trustees of the McLean Family Trust. The proposed Englewood deal would kill the lawsuit, removing Scott and Lucas from legal liability and control over the company at the same time.

Eureka attorney William Bertain, who represents the employees in the lawsuit, said he had spoken to Eckart about the deal and "there is a possibility of a happy resolution."

Just two weeks ago the company announced that the last of its log supply was about to run out and the remaining employees would be laid off. Management has contended for more than a year that Eel River does not have a sufficient supply of reasonably priced logs and was headed for closure, but Eckart said he believes Eel River can be run at a profit.

"This mill, in good years, made $8 million to $12 million," he said. He added that "there are logs around" -- although he declined to say where.

But Englewood isn't the only group putting an offer on the table. Jane McDowell, another trustee of the McLean Family Trust, said there are "two offers that are being considered." She declined to comment on who had made the other offer, but said the final deal would be made public.

"It's all getting taken care of," she said.

"Doc" Ball dead at 94

Surfers in Humboldt County and across California lost a pioneer last week: John "Doc" Ball died at his Eureka home Dec. 4 of heart disease.

"Doc" Ball was one of the first surfers on the mainland. Until he and his peers brought the sport to the California coast in the '20s and '30s, the sport had remained largely confined to its home in Hawaii.

When Ball moved to Humboldt County in 1952, he brought his pioneer surfing spirit with him. It had been unheard of to surf so far north, but after Ball took his board to Shelter Cove, surfing had a new home. He continued to surf until the age of 92 -- when he began to devote his time to skateboarding instead.

Test elected Arcata Mayor

Arcata got a new mayor in a five-minute ceremony at City Hall Dec. 11.

Connie Stewart opened the meeting and called for nominations. Councilman Robert Noble nominated Jim Test, and the council voted unanimously to elect him just moments later.

"I know I'll never be Connie Stewart, but hopefully I will do almost as well," Test said.


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