With a Two-Carpetbagger Council Nigh, Isn’t it Time for Eureka To Scrap Its Ludicrous Electoral System?
Hank Sims / Yesterday @ noon / Local Government
News comes this morning that Eureka Mayor Frank Jager will nominate longtime resident Chet Albin to fill outgoing Fifth Ward Councilmember Lance Madsen’s seat on the Eureka City Council.
Albin must be confirmed by a majority of the remaining four members of the City Council, but that should present no problem — they, like he, tend toward the Tea Partyish end of the political spectrum, and so will likely welcome Albin, a newly minted “Democrat,” with open arms.
All well and good.
But poor Mr. Albin! Not only did he change party affiliation, he actually had to move house — on paper, at least — in order to qualify for the Fifth Ward seat, as the North Coast Journal’s Ryan Burns amusingly documented a few weeks ago. That places him in good company: Back in 2010, now-Third Ward Councilmember Mike Newman bagged up his carpets and shifted home from the Second Ward to run.
Poor fellows! None of it would be necessary were it not for Eureka’s skull-crushingly dumb system of choosing its elected representatives. Here it is, in brief: The city is geographically divided into five wards. The City Council has five seats. Each seat is reserved for a representative who is registered to vote in each of the wards.
Here’s the twist, though — the entire city votes for each representative. So if you live in the Third Ward, you’re not only voting for your Third Ward representative. You’re voting on who the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth wards get to have as their representatives too.
The logic of this unusual arrangement has always been difficult to pin down. Almost all the time, cities do this one of two ways: Either ward residents vote only for their own representative, or everyone votes for everyone in an at-large election, with no residency requirements for candidates. Put another way: Either councilmembers represent the whole city and the whole city votes for them, or councilmembers represent a geographic subunit of the city and only residents of that subunit vote for them.
Eureka does it different. Theoretically, the councilmembers represent the subunit — or why else have the residency requirement? — and yet everyone in the city gets a say as to who represents what. Again: If you think you have a handle on the rationale behind this, then please do share.
There have been attempts at reform in the past — even in the not-so-distant past — but they have all flamed out hard, mostly due to resistance from the city’s codgerly conservative faction. But hey — isn’t it now the codgerly conservative faction whose candidates have to go through the trouble of carpetbagging around town in order to land on an empty seat? Might they reconsider?
Press release from the City of Eureka follows:
Mayor Frank Jäger announced today that he is recommending Chet Albin for appointment to the Eureka City Council, 5th Ward. The appointment will be agendized on the December 17, 2013 Council meeting for approval by Council.
Three Eureka citizens of the 5th Ward submitted their names to Mayor Jäger for the vacancy created by Councilmember Lance Madsen of the 5th ward. A five-member sub-committee consisting of Mike Jones, Polly Endert, Neal Latt, Lorene Dunnaway and John Fullerton interviewed each of the applicants and made their recommendation to Mayor Jäger. The three qualified applicants were Chet Albin, Leslie Lolich and Barry Smith who all live within the 5th Ward. Mr. Albin was ranked as the number one candidate by 4 of the 5 sub-committee members.
Chet Albin has been a Eureka resident since 1985 and is a lifelong resident of Humboldt County. He has served on many local organizations including Fortuna Rotary, CASA, Humboldt Independent Insurance Agents Association, Six Rivers Basketball Referees Association, Eureka Hosing Advisory Board, Eureka Parking Place Commission and is currently a member of the Eureka Planning Commission.
Mayor Jäger would like to thank all of the applicants who came forward to apply for the vacancy and volunteer to serve the City of Eureka. Special thanks to the committee for giving up an evening of their time to assist in the process. Mayor Jäger stated, “It was a very tough decision as each of the applicants was very qualified and would do a great job for Eureka. At the end of the day, I relied on the recommendation of the 5 member committee and their insight into the candidates along with input from Councilmember Lance Madsen.”
Yesterday: 6 felonies, 18 misdemeanors, 0 infractions
Humboldt County Superior Court Calendar: Today
No current incidents
Huffington Post: Cops asked for cell phone data 1 million times last year
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Arcatans are estimated to use about four million single-use plastic bags annually. After last night, that number should drop dramatically.
In a 5-0 decision, the city council decided to adopt a bag ordinance that prohibits those plastic carryout bags found at grocery stores and restaurants.
“We’re really happy that Humboldt Waste Management did our EIR (enviromental impact report) and made it available for everyone in the county to use,” said Alex Stillman, Arcata City Councilmember. “And we’re looking forward to adopting it, and also the county considering adopting it so that we can, as a coastal city and coastal county, eliminate plastic bags from our environment.”
Arcata’s bag ban goes into effect in February 2014, Stillman said. Starting in August, the city will mandate a ten-cent charge on paper bags.
Plastic bags don’t biodegrade. Instead, they get shredded into smaller and smaller pieces until they work their way into the food chain. “There are places in the ocean where you find more particles of plastic than plankton,” said Humboldt Baykeeper’s Jessica Hall. “This is the single most popular issue when we post this on our Facebook page,” she said. “This is the thing people have really, really responded too.”
Though Stillman said she’d been eyeing a bag ordinance for Arcata since her reelection in 2006, Hall notes that this is the first plastic bag ban in Humboldt county. In addition to the city staff, Hall added that “Humboldt Waste Management Authority also gets a big high five for putting this on the table in the first place and I’d also like to thank our partners in the environmental community and the community members themselves.”
Now’s as good a time as ever to enjoy Australian comedian Tim Minchin’s epic anthem.
Arcata Faces the Music: Special City Council Meeting Tomorrow on Payback of $4.5 Million in Funds Misappropriated From the State
Hank Sims / Wednesday, Oct. 23 @ 2:54 p.m. / Local Government
Sandpiper Park: The bulk of the $4.5 million misappropriated from redevelopment went to fund this low-income housing development.
The Arcata City Council is calling a special meeting tomorrow morning at 8:30 to deal with the ever-increasing threat of a “clawback” of millions of dollars misappropriated from the state of California when the state closed down all local redevelopment agencies in 2011.
Under pressure from the California Department of Finance, which is threatening to withhold sales and property tax collected within the city limits, staff is asking the council to approve a 10-year repayment plan that will take $300,000 annually out of the city budget until the year 2025.
The money owed by the city to the state comes from its former redevelopment agency, which — like all other redevelopment agencies in California — was dissolved in 2011 in order to help resolve the state budget crisis. Shortly before the redevelopment agencies were officially dissolved, the state put a lock on redevelopment funds. Between the placing of this lock and the final dissolution of redevelopment, the city of Arcata managed to push millions of dollars out the door.
As shown in an excellent Arcata Eye article from Dec. 2012, most of those funds went to the Sandpiper Park project on South G Street — the conversion of an old and ratty mobile home park into inexpensive houses for low-income people. (Helen Sanderson wrote about the genesis of the deal for the North Coast Journal in 2006.) Smaller pockets of redevelopment money went to the Plaza Point senior housing project near the Co-op and various planning and streetscaping efforts.
When the state came calling to get its money, the city put up a massive fight, insisting that it acted properly and would not have to return the cash. In the meanwhile, the Department of Finance decided to scrutinize the books further, eventually adding another $2 million to the amount it believed it was due. (Hence the inflation from $2.4 million in the headline of that Dec. 2012 Eye article to the $4.5 million the city will be talking about tomorrow.)
That fight has been lost. Tomorrow, the city will either follow the staff’s recommendation to face the music and encumber the city budget for the next decade, or else it will face massive repercussions from the state — the draconian garnishing of the tax revenues that keep the police, fire and other essential city services funded.
You can get the agenda for tomorrow morning’s meeting, as well as submit comments to the council, at this link. The staff report comes in two parts — one to the City Council proper (here) and one to the “successor agency” to the former Arcata Redevelopment Agency (here), which is essentially the City Council in different form.
Note: Former Arcata Mayor, Arcata City Manager, State Senator and North Coast Railroad Authority Executive Director Dan Hauser serves on the board of directors of Resident Owned Parks, developer of the Sandpiper and recipient of the lion’s share of the misappropriated funds. Hauser said some colorful things about the “low-level bureaucrats” who now seem to have won this war in that Arcata Eye article. Those words are worth revisiting.
[Ed. note — Bernie Meyers — a lawyer, antitrust prosecutor, former Novato City Council member, and occasional Lost Coast Outpost Op-Ed columnist — is stepping down from the board of directors of the North Coast Railroad Authority, where he has served as one of Marin County’s appointees for the last six years.
As a parting gift to the public, Meyers has penned this incredible FAQ that lays out the authority and its 1,000 troubles in great gaudy detail. This will forever more be the URL to which you send your friends when they ask: “NCRA? What’s that? What’s the controversy?
Mr. Meyers: We thank you for your service.]
Questions & Answers About the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA)
What is the NCRA?
It is an Executive Director and a Legal Counsel who direct activities in connection with a freight rail right-of-way.
What do they do?
They mainly oversee a lease with a freight line operator, “NWP”. NWP is headed by a former NCRA Executive Director and a General Counsel who was a member of the California Legislature and the US House of Representatives.
Are there others at the NCRA?
Yes. There is an Executive Assistant and an on-call engineer. Of late, there is also a part-time real estate assistant.
What is the term of the lease?
With potential extensions, about a century.
How much money does the Lease require NWP pay to the NCRA?
Nothing, until NWP has a year in which it makes $5 million in net profits.
When might that happen?
It depends, but it is very possible to not occur this century.
Well, once the $5 million threshold has been achieved, will NWP be required to pay lots of money to NCRA?
No. Any money NWP pays is placed in a fund, and there is a cap on the fund. Once the cap is reached, no further fees need be paid, except that if the fund balance falls below the cap, fees to bring the fund back up to the cap are to be paid. Also, NWP has to OK all the fund’s expenditures. And when the lease expires, all of the money then in the fund is given to NWP.
How can that be?
Ask who negotiated the Lease.
Who negotiated the Lease?
For the NCRA, the Executive Director and the Legal Counsel. For NWP, the former Executive Director and the General Counsel.
Was there a connection between NCRA’s Executive Director and the NWP?
No, except that the NCRA Executive Director was the Chief-of-Staff for the NWP General Counsel while the General Counsel was in the Legislature and in Congress.
How do the lease terms compare with similar leases between state railroad entities and private operators?
Not favorably. Generally, others are for terms of between 5 and 20 years, with possible renewals if conditions are met. For example, a 2007 Ohio lease provides for 5-year renewals if various conditions are met, including a review of shipper satisfaction, safety, car loadings, track maintenance and financials. Then there are best practice provisions, energy efficiency provisions, and conflict-of-interest provisions.
Did the NCRA staff publically compare the NCRA-NWP lease terms with the terms of similar leases from other state owned rail lines and explain why it chose the differences?
Might there be other reasons why the lease has these terms?
Yes. The line was not functioning for five years before the lease was negotiated. The northern part of the line runs through a very active geological area and is very expensive to maintain. Some of the line’s old customers were no longer in business and the others had switched to other means of shipment. Timber production had fallen from its heyday and was unlikely to reach its prior levels. There were public funds available for repairs, but were only sufficient to repair part of the line. The major potential source of freight revenue was from aggregate in the Eel River Canyon (Island Mountain) where the repairs would far exceed available public funds.
So NWP was the only operator willing to give operations a try?
Was there a request for rail operators sent out for public bidding?
Was NWP the only responder?
No. There were five responders. Three were apparently viable contenders. Two of the others promised to pay NCRA a portion of their revenues and a monthly stipend. But NWP was deemed the winner. The lease negotiations then commenced and ended three months later.
Did NWP make some payments to NCRA besides those required by the lease?
Yes. In a side agreement to the lease, NWP agreed to pay $20,000/month until such time as it would have to pay trackage fees under the lease, and NWP would get credit for these side agreement payments when it later was to make trackage payments. But NWP changed the agreement to end the monthly payments earlier. Later it turned the side agreement payments it had previously made into a receivable owed to it by NCRA. So over the last six years, NWP has paid about $30,000 in trackage fees to NCRA and is not paying anything now.
When the lease was signed in September 2006 did NWP think that there was enough public funds to rehabilitate the line to Willits?
No. Prior cost estimates were known to no longer be applicable. The funding was thought sufficient to get the line repaired to Windsor and perhaps a bit further.
Does NCRA have a mandate requiring it to get the line up and running over its entire right-of-way, no matter what?
No. The NCRA is based on the California Government Code (Section 93000 et seq). It was to prepare a plan for the acquisition and operation of the railroad line at no expense to the state. In evaluating the plan NCRA is not required to forgo common sense. It is not required to expend public funds to no avail. It should determine whether its operations are fiscally prudent.
Tell me about the right-of-way.
It is about 310 miles long, running from near Lombard (near Napa), west to Novato, in Marin County, and then northward through Sonoma County, Mendocino County, a small bit of Trinity County and then up around Humboldt Bay (Samoa) in Humboldt County. It started operations a century ago when SP and Santa Fe ran timber and passengers along the line. In 1929, SP took it over. Over time, the amount of freight diminished and some of the operations were sold to an entity that soon went bankrupt. In 1989 the California Legislature formed the NCRA, which then bought part of the line. The southern end of the line (from Healdsburg south) is owned by what is now known as SMART and NCRA has a freight (and excursion) easement over SMART’s line, while SMART has a passenger easement over a portion of NCRA’s line. The line was SP’s most expensive line to maintain. It suffered devastating flooding in 1964. SP rebuilt it. Again in the 90’s it suffered flooding and eventually, in 1998, the feds shut the line down (EO-21) until repairs could be affected.
Was the line recently repaired?
Partially. It was rehabilitated from Lombard to Windsor, just north of Santa Rosa, about 62 miles. The work started in 2007 and was completed in 2010 (per NCRA) or 2011 (per NWP).
How much was paid for the rehab?
NCRA says it cost $68 million taxpayer dollars. Another $3 million was spent by NWP but most of that has been reimbursed with taxpayer funds.
Was the NWP money spent to cover work done after a public bidding process?
No. NWP was given a no-bid contract.
Was the NWP work completed in accordance with the initial contract price and timeframe?
No. The final cost was about 3 times the initial amount and instead of three months it took over a year.
Did the Board audit the billing?
No. It is a sorry story. Don’t get me started.
Was that the last no-bid contract awarded to NWP?
No. NWP has been awarded a no-bid contract for the cleanup of toxics at the Ukiah Depot.
Does NWP have experience in cleaning up toxics?
No. It has hired a contractor to do so. NWP adds 7% to the contractor’s bills for itself.
Who directs NCRA’s Executive Director and Legal Counsel?
Under California law, the NCRA has a nine member Board of Directors. Two each are appointed for two-year terms by the Boards of Supervisors of each of the four counties, and one is chosen from among the cities along the right-of-way.
Who oversees the Board?
Does the Board give periodic reports to anyone?
Not really. It does have an outside auditor review its books from time-to-time. Its most recent audit covers the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2011.
2011? This is 2013!
How about reports to the California Transportation Commission, or the Cal Legislature, or Caltrans, or the feds, or any of the Boards of Supervisors?
For the most part, no. Generally there are no reporting requirements. Because the NCRA misspent some taxpayer funds over a decade ago, Caltrans listed the NCRA as a High Risk Agency. This meant that if NCRA spent taxpayer grant funds administered by Caltrans, before Caltrans reimbursed NCRA, Caltrans required that the contract be bid out and that NCRA pay the contractor bills. If NCRA did not have sufficient funds to pay the contractor, NCRA had to borrow funds and then pay off the loan when Caltrans reimbursed NCRA. NCRA had over a decade to remove itself from the High Risk designation, but it chose not to. This cost NCRA over half-a-million extra taxpayer dollars – so far. So there have been reports of a sort to Caltrans.
There were other reports to the CTC on those occasions when NCRA sought to obtain state funds to do the rehabilitation work and as the funds were spent down.
The Marin County Board of Supervisors twice invited NCRA to appear (2010, 2013). The first time, the NCRA Chairman said NCRA would do so, but then it did not. The second time it declined to appear. While there might have been NCRA reports to other Boards, none are known. The Marin representatives have periodically made individual agendized public reports to the Marin Board. Other representatives may have acted similarly, but none are known.
NCRA also reports yearly to the California Comptroller. But the numbers shown in the Comptroller’s reports are clearly erroneous. The erroneous numbers were repeatedly brought to the Executive Director’s attention. Apparently, NCRA has not taken any action to correct the numbers.
Is NCRA financially stable?
Looking at its finances, it appears to be near bankruptcy. The current budget can only be balanced by assuming that significant obligations will not be paid. Prior years’ budgets showed expenses well in excess of revenues. It has a long list of creditors with claims well in excess of NCRA’s yearly revenues.
How will NCRA repay its creditors and continue to exist?
NCRA has assets. Perhaps it most easily liquidated asset is the 10 or so acres it owns in Ukiah (the Ukiah Depot property). The property needs to be cleansed of toxics, but after that, 3 to 4 acres are to be sold to the California Courts for a new courthouse. The remaining acreage can then be sold to one or more developers. The millions of dollars expected from these sales should pay off most, if not all, of the creditors.
NCRA also owns property in the Eel River Canyon. The value of these properties is unknown, but substantial enough that NWP insisted that NCRA not grant any security interest in them or sell them without NWP’s OK.
Is there a list of creditors, showing who is owed what and the order of repayment, and is it regularly updated?
No. No list and no updates.
Are staff members creditors?
Yes. Legal Counsel is owed several hundred thousand dollars. The on-call engineer is also owed a substantial amount.
Who audits the amounts due staff members?
No one has audited Counsel’s billings.
NCRA covers a large area – four California Counties. Does it hold public meetings?
Yes. It generally meets monthly, on the second Wednesday of the month, rotating through each of the four counties. It has a small office in Ukiah.
How does NCRA keep the public informed about its activities?
On Friday it posts in its Ukiah office the agenda for the succeeding Wednesday. Generally it also has a packet of material available there which covers the agenda items.
But the line stretches 150 miles north and 150 miles south of Ukiah. How does the public get the information about the upcoming meetings?
The agenda is posted on the NCRA website. Sometimes it is posted on Friday. Often it is not posted until later, including Monday and even Tuesday. Likewise, the packet is generally posted on Monday or even Tuesday. Copies of the agenda and packet are also mailed to interested parties, on the preceding Friday or the next day or so.
Are the meetings broadcast in real time?
Are all of the proceedings available on the website soon after the meetings are concluded, including final versions of the action items and all of the public’s submissions?
No. Minutes are approved at a succeeding meeting, but they are action item minutes, not verbatim minutes. There is a recording made of each regular Board meeting and often posted on the website, but the quality lacks something. Public submissions at meetings are not put on the website.
What independent study is there of the line’s future prospects for hauling freight and carrying excursion and commute passengers?
In 2002 a study was done for the Humboldt Bay Harbor District.
What did it conclude?
That the line would be very expensive to maintain, and under all but exceptional circumstances the line would not be able to make money for the 25 years of the study.
Has there been a more recent study?
No. In about 2010 NWP supposedly did a market analysis of at least a part of the line, and used it to support a joint (with NCRA) loan application to the feds. But NWP did not allow the NCRA Board to see the analysis.
In its requests for grants does NCRA include any independent market analyses showing what benefits would inure from the grant funds?
No. The most recent application (TIGER V) only used NWP’s estimate of new freight it would haul.
Can the Board members be replaced at the next election?
No. As noted above, Board members are appointed for two-year terms, and they may seek reappointment for additional terms. They are not elected by a vote of the people.
Are Directors free to voice their opinions about actions taken by NCRA?
Not according to the NCRA. In December 2012 the Board adopted a “Code of Ethics” which requires all Directors to uphold all Board decisions once the Board has voted. If followed, this would inhibit, if not prohibit, full, fair reports to the appointing Boards of Supervisors and others.
Isn’t that a violation of each Director’s rights under the First Amendment?
Can the NCRA be changed?
Yes. It could go to the California Legislature and explain what it has accomplished in its existence, what its problems are, how it got to where it is, what its potential for success is, and what the Legislature might do to authorize NCRA to operate differently. Then the public could weigh in as well. There would be a full and frank discussion about what is needed to revamp NCRA and the governing statute would be changed to encompass the conclusions.
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. No, really. How might the NCRA be changed?
A member of the Legislature could ask for the Joint Legislative Committee to review NCRA’s operations, audit its finances, and then give a recommendation as to how NCRA could be changed so as to provide benefit to the State. Then the public could weigh in as well. There would be a full and frank discussion about what is needed to revamp NCRA and the governing statute would be changed to encompass the conclusions.
An alternative would be for NCRA to declare bankruptcy as soon as possible. That way it would still have some assets to cover its legitimate debts and put an end to its ongoing financial debacle. It would probably also prompt the Legislature to proceed as noted above.
The Lost Coast Outpost was not able to cover yesterday’s meeting of the California Coastal Commission in Eureka — here are some reports from the Times-Standard and the North Coast Journal — but the commission’s decision on Caltrans’ proposals for new construction on the safety corridor between Eureka and Arcata was pretty monumental. In one swoop, the commission puts a ton of juice into two longstanding and somewhat controversial proposals: To build a pedestrian trail between Eureka and Arcata, and to remove billboards along the bay.
All that in addition to the actual safety corridor project itself.
When we talked to Eureka Mayor Frank Jager this morning to talk about departing city manager Bill Panos, he was ecstatic. “I have a lot of contempt for the Coastal Commission,” Jager said. “They have really hurt us with their overreaching. I was really sure they were going to turn us down. But they surprised me.”
Jager said his first order of business today would be to write a thank-you letter to each commissioner.
The environmental community is also well pleased, as this press release from the Northcoast Environmental Center demonstrates:
September 13, 2013 – The Northcoast Environmental Center and Humboldt Baykeeper declare today’s Coastal Commission decision on the Highway 101 Corridor Project a victory for our community. After a lengthy hearing with public testimony covering very broad opinions on the project – for, against, and everywhere in between – the Coastal Commission voted to approve the Highway 101 Corridor Project with the following conditions: construction of a separated Humboldt Bay Trail, removal of all billboards along the 101 corridor, address sea level rise in project design, and further study of wetland mitigation areas.
Along with these conditions, the project will still consist of the proposed interchange at Indianola Cutoff, a half-signal at Airport Boulevard, and closure of the other medians within the safety corridor.
In response to the decision, Jessica Hall, Executive Director of Humboldt Baykeeper stated, “While we were disappointed that the Commission approved the interchange without addressing the increase in speeds that will result from the project, we are very pleased that the Coastal Commission incorporated four conditions of approval that we have fought hard for over the years.”
Hall concluded by expressing her gratitude, “Thanks to the Coastal Commission and staff for their efforts on this project and for their work to uphold one of California’s greatest environmental laws – the Coastal Act.”
Dan Ehresman, Executive Director of the Northcoast Environmental Center weighed in on the hearing outcome, “We think that the Commission’s decision today is a win/win for North Coast residents. Although we question whether the interchange is the best solution to address traffic safety concerns, we believe that the conditions Caltrans will have to meet are a huge victory that will benefit generations to come.”
Ehresman went on to urge members of the public to stay involved, “Even though there is cause for celebration right now, we have a lot of work ahead. The Coastal Commission’s decision is an opportunity to work together towards a completed 101 Corridor project that ensures the Bay Trail gets funded and built, all billboards are removed along the Bay, and appropriate measures are taken to address sea level rise and wetland fill.”
While this decision green-lights the Caltrans proposal, details of the design and progress on the conditions will be reviewed by the Coastal Commission again during the Coastal Development Permit phase of the project.