Soon-to-retire Chief Probation Officer Bill Damiano and Sheriff Billy Honsal (seated in foreground) address the Board of Supervisors. | Ryan Burns.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors covered a lot of ground during Tuesday’s meeting, deliberating on a number of hot-button questions, including:

  • Should the Humboldt County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau finally embrace our county’s weed-infused reputation and market the region as a cannabis tourism destination?
  • Given the community’s rising frustration over property crime and the “revolving door” of our criminal justice system, should the board officially support a pending tough-on-crime voter initiative called the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018”? Or would that act just replace some bad laws with another bad law?
  • With the early resignation of Auditor-Controller Joe Mellett — and all the recent turbulence in that office — should the county hold job interviews to hire a replacement to serve the remainder of the term? Or should it appoint the office’s second-in-command, firebrand Assistant Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez, who’s one of two candidates running for the position in June’s primary? … Or (spoiler alert!) did someone maybe have a secret plan in the works, a way to sidestep this political quagmire?

Before getting to those contentious questions, however, the board had a bit of a love-fest for two retiring lawmen, each with 30 years of service under their respective utility belts. Both Humboldt County Correctional Captain Ed Wilkinson and Chief Probation Officer William Damiano received standing ovations from the sizable assemblage of law enforcement professionals who’d gathered in board chambers to honor them.

Wilkinson graciously accepted kudos from the board and his colleagues, and he offered some departing words of wisdom. The county needs to address its ongoing mental health crisis, he said, by developing “a facility for people who desperately need housing — because jail isn’t the place to house some of these individuals.”

Damiano said it has been an honor serving as the county’s chief probation officer. Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass said she’d been hoping this day of his retirement would never come. And staff from both the District Attorney’s Victim Witness Program and the Humboldt Rape Crisis Team commended Damiano as an ally and a “gift to our community.”

Cannabis Tourism

Tony Smithers and Richard Stenger of the Humboldt County Convention and Visitors Bureau (HCCVB) delivered their agency’s annual tourism report, highlighting increased lodging numbers and positive outside media coverage, especially Lonely Planet‘s coronation of California’s Redwood Coast as the No. 1 U.S. travel destination for 2018

Last year was a good one for tourism, the men reported, but following their presentation they got some pressure to update their messaging. Bass told them that their organization needs to become “forward-thinking” and asked if they have thought of incorporating cannabis tourism into their marketing efforts now that we have pot shops and even a company developing cannabis tours.

Smithers said his agency’s 21-member board of directors will address that very question at its next meeting and quickly transitioned back to the topic of redwood trees. But Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell brought the conversation back to marijuana, telling Smithers, “I believe there is going to be quite a lot of economic potential there.”

Members of the public hammered that message home. Terra Carver, executive director of the the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, an industry advocacy group, said her organization is “very concerned” with the HCCVB’s lack of content promoting the newly regulated weed industry.

“Why would the organization [that] is designed to market Humboldt, [that] is funded by local tax dollars … not have a plan to incorporate cannabis into their strategy after the voters have made it clear that cannabis will continue to be part of Humboldt County’s future moving forward?” Carver said. “Just imagine if Napa didn’t market wine.”

North Coast Journal and Humboldt Insider Publisher Chuck Leishman noted that Humboldt County has national and perhaps international name recognition as a cannabis mecca, and he suggested that’s “a brand we need to massage and grow.”

And Mariellen Jurkovich, owner of the Humboldt Patient Resource Center, suggested that the HCCVB put a representative from the weed industry on their board. “We are part of this [tourism] industry bringing money into this community,” Jurkovich said. 

Smithers reiterated that his board will soon discuss the matter, though he noted (in response to a question from Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson regarding public participation in that conversation) that HCCVB board meetings aren’t open to the public. While the organization is funded through taxpayer dollars, it’s organized as a private nonprofit.

Crime Bill

Halfway through Tuesday’s meeting an unexpected debate broke out regarding California’s approach to crime and punishment. Specifically the debate concerned a planned voter initiative called the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018,” a criminal justice reform measure slated for June’s state primary November’s General Election ballot.

The initiative markets itself as a corrective to the unintended consequences of Props 47 and 57 and Assembly Bill 109, measures designed to reduce overcrowding in state prisons and divert certain offenders into community supervision programs. The new bill’s authors say those laws collectively “have released tens of thousands of inmates, straining local jails and fueling a new surge in local crime and homelessness.”

The board was all set to sign a resolution officially supporting the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018,” but Damiano, the county’s almost-retired probation chief, asked for that resolution to be pulled from the consent calendar for discussion.

Damiano took a seat at the microphone-equipped desk facing the board and proceeded to voice his reservations about the measure. He sat elbow-to-elbow with Humboldt County Sheriff Billy Honsal, who voiced his support for the measure.

Damiano said that while he’d be the first to admit that Props 47 and 57 were flawed, this proposed corrective amounts to a “knee-jerk reaction,” one that would take away important tools that local probation departments use to help offenders recover from addiction, find housing and employment and reintegrate into society.

“I appreciate law enforcement’s tough-on-crime stance, but I also believe in being realistic,” Damiano said. California remains under a federal order to reduce its prison population, and Damiano said he’s worried that this voter measure would wind up diverting funds from rehabilitation programs. Besides, the state has a limited number of cells in its prisons and jails. “The egg carton only holds so many eggs,” he said. Sentencing more people to confinement will only force state and local officials to choose which other inmates to release.

“I implore you not to support this right now,” Damiano said.

But Honsal politely disagreed. He argued that Propositions 47 and 57 reduced his office’s ability to collect DNA samples from inmates, taking away a tool that can be used to solve crimes. And he complained about Prop. 47’s $950 threshold for classifying certain crimes as felonies rather than misdemeanors. 

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn quickly sided with Honsal. He said he hears local retailers express frustration over increased crime on a daily basis.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but we’ve got to do something,” Bohn said.

Damiano assured Bohn that he, too, dislikes repeat crime and “the misery it creates in our community,” but he argued that since 95 percent of people put into custody will inevitably be released back into society it makes more sense to focus on rehabilitation programs and drug and alcohol counseling. More punitive measures, such as the state’s three-strikes sentencing law, only resulted in overcrowded prisons.

“If tough-on-crime worked to change behavior we wouldn’t have crime today,” Damiano sad. 

Fennell responded that while  she understands Damiano’s concerns, she, like Bohn, keeps hearing from angry shopkeepers and residents who are fed up with crime. “Everything I read in this resolution convinces me it’s in response to people’s concerns,” Fennell said.

Damiano noted that there are currently some bills pending in the state legislature that aim to fix flaws in propositions 47 and 57, and Chief Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen suggested that the board could ask staff to gather more information on those measures before deciding whether or not to support the ballot measure.

But ultimately the majority of the board decided to stand behind the “Reducing Crime and Keeping California Safe Act of 2018” as, if nothing else, a statement of protest against that prior legislation.

“I apologize,” Bohn said, “but people are just begging for something to happen.”

Only Wilson voted no, saying he would rather wait for staff to research current legislation.


Finally, with a nifty little last-minute personnel maneuver suggested by Bohn, the board managed to sidestep yet another thicket of controversy in the Auditor-Controller’s Office.

As mentioned above, Auditor-Controller Joe Mellett’s premature retirement, scheduled to take effect April 27, left the county with an eight-month vacancy for this elected position. Staff was recommending that the board direct Human Resources to launch a recruitment process to find someone to fill that position on a temporary basis. The hiring process would have entailed public job interviews, with each candidate giving a 15-minute oral presentation before the board.

During the public comment period, the aforementioned firebrand assistant auditor-controller, Karen Paz Dominguez, objected to this proposal, telling the board it could save precious public funds by simply appointing her to the job on an interim basis, at least through the end of the fiscal year when the results of June’s primary election will be known. (She’s running against Michael Lorig, an accountant in the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services.)

“If elected by Humboldt County voters to be the auditor-controller, then I should remain appointed until my term begins in January,” Paz Dominguez said. “If Humboldt County voters elect my opponent instead, then I will not hesitate to step back and support your decision to appoint him beginning the start of this next fiscal year in July.”

Given the existing tension between the Chief Administrator’s Office and Paz Dominguez (see here for background), it seemed unlikely that CAO Nilsen would recommend Paz Dominguez for the job. And the board seemed reluctant to take any action that might influence the coming election.

So a wave of relief seemed to roll over the chamber when Bohn suggested a third option: hire Cheryl Dillingham for the job. 

Dillingham, a former assistant county administrative officer, is now a retired annuitant, still in the county’s payroll system. (She’s been working in the CAO’s office on county compliance with the American with Disabilities Act.) Plus, she worked in the auditor-controller’s office for 13 years.

Dillingham just happened to be sitting in the audience (or so everyone claimed), and when the board called her forward she said that she is indeed available and willing to step into the job on an interim basis.

Bohn insisted the idea didn’t occur to him until Dillingham walked into the chambers, and all four other supervisors said they were surprised by the idea. But they all welcomed it, and they approved her appointment unanimously.