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Two days and 600 miles apart, a pair of governing bodies held very different conversations about the need for local input into development decisions that will impact Humboldt County for decades to come. It was a bit jarring.

First, on May 7, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors had a testy exchange over a seemingly reasonable request from Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone that the board send a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), asking that it request that the California Coastal Commission delay a hearing on a controversial hotel project near Trinidad by two months so local residents can provide input. Two days later, the commission — an agency with a big-government reputation for taking a top-down approach — stressed the importance of making sure larger projects are heard in the communities that will house them.

Madrone's request comes as the Coastal Commission is preparing to hold a hearing on Trinidad Rancheria's proposed project to build a five-story hotel next to its casino on Scenic Drive. Because the Rancheria is a sovereign nation, it's ultimately up to the BIA to approve the project. But as a part of the BIA's process, the federal agency asks the commission to offer an "objection" or "concurrence" as to whether it would comply with the California Coastal Act. The matter is scheduled to come before the commission next month at its San Diego meeting — which falls just two months before the commission meets in Eureka.

Responding to requests from constituents, Madrone asked the board to send the letter to BIA, saying it was an issue of good governance and transparency to allow local residents to address the commission without having to drive 750 miles south. Three-fifths of the board pushed back. Hard. And that's a bit perplexing.

Supervisor Virginia Bass said every jurisdiction in the state has important issues coming before the commission and it's not up to the board to opine on which projects the commission hears and when. Supervisor Estelle Fennell said, as she understands it, BIA won't grant the request anyway, adding she has confidence the commission will thoroughly vet the project. Supervisor Rex Bohn echoed the concerns of Rancheria representatives, saying the two-month delay could cause additional expenses and impact project financing.

But these reasons seem thin. After all, the board has not been shy about weighing in on the processes of other governing agencies. A couple of years ago, it urged the commission to support an application to expand oyster farming in Humboldt Bay. Heck, earlier in the May 7 meeting, the board debated a resolution calling on the state to abandon plans for a high-speed rail and approved sending a letter to the California State University system urging it to reverse Humboldt State University's gutting of KHSU-FM, in part, to close its budget deficit. So the board clearly has no philosophical issues with weighing in on other entities' processes, disregarding their financial concerns and advocating the interests of its constituents.

But when Madrone and Supervisor Mike Wilson pushed back, with Wilson saying he didn't understand the controversy and Madrone saying he was simply asking that the board defer to his knowledge of his constituents and support a request that's tremendously important to some of them, things escalated. Bass said she felt blackmailed and Bohn told Madrone: "Respect is earned, not given and I hope you know that."

The strangely terse exchange only seemed weirder when, two days later, California Coastal Commission Executive Director Jack Ainsworth described Caltrans' pushback to postponing a hearing on its U.S. Highway 101 safety corridor improvement project two months until the commission meets in Eureka as "incredibly disappointing" and stressed the importance of holding local hearings for "these larger projects."

Now the BIA clearly has a difficult decision ahead — one that will attempt to balance the desire of a sovereign nation for an economic development project against concerns over that project's impact on the environment and coastal resources of the surrounding area. But we hope our elected officials would advocate at every step for more — not fewer — opportunities for their constituents to be heard on the issue.

We are not clear why Bohn, Bass and Fennell wouldn't support Madrone's request because, honestly, their stated reasons don't make sense. Maybe they are putting vague concerns about the costs of the delay to the Rancheria over the value of ensuring locals feel heard on a project that could alter one of Humboldt County's most famous viewscapes, which would be disappointing. Or perhaps they feel more allegiance to the project's proponents than to the rest of us. After all, their former colleague, Ryan Sundberg, is working as the interim general manager of the Rancheria's casino and David Tyson, Bohn's close friend who worked with Bass as city manager when she was a Eureka city councilmember and mayor, is serving as the interim CEO of the Rancheria's economic development arm and the public face of the project.

If that's the case, well, that really would be incredibly disappointing.

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About The Author

Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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