Ryan Burns / Wednesday, Jan. 31 @ 10:37 a.m. / Local Government
With Controversial Project Heading to Board, Mercer-Fraser President Flew County Supervisor and Staff to Sacramento Event in a Private Plane
Two weeks ago, at a festive reception and awards ceremony in downtown Sacramento, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn was installed as chair of the Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC). The organization is an influential lobbying group that represents 35 California counties, and until two weeks ago no Humboldt County supervisor had ever served as the group’s chair. So Bohn’s ascension to the position was cause for celebration, and indeed, a good-sized entourage made the trip to Sacramento to commemorate the occasion.
Four of the county’s five supervisors were in attendance, along with several prominent local business leaders, some members of county staff, State Senator Mike McGuire and others. Below are some photos posted to Facebook by Tracy D’Amico, deputy clerk of the Board of Supervisors.
Some of these folks drove down to the state Capitol. Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass, who was already heading to Sacramento for a meeting of the California State Association of Counties, said she managed to keep up with the lead-footed Bohn until Willits, where she lost sight of him.
But others traveled in private planes on flights donated by two local business leaders. One plane, a 2004 Pilatus PC-12 (pictured here), is owned by ACV Group LLC, a corporation whose CEO, Justin Zabel, is president of local construction firm Mercer-Fraser — a company with a controversial project currently pending before the Board of Supervisors.
Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg was on that flight, though he opted to pay for his seat (more on that in a minute). Two county staffers — Chief Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen and Clerk of the Board of Supervisors Kathy Hayes — were also on the flight.
A second plane, belonging to Shafer’s Ace Hardware owner Jack Rieke, carried Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell, D’Amico and Sheriff William Honsal — this according to the county’s public information officer, Sean Quincey, who said the staffers were on the clock.
“Nobody took overtime as everyone is a management & confidential employee,” Quincey said in an email. “Honsal took 2 hours of vacation (he was in plain clothes for the trip).”
All but Sundberg rode for free, and Quincey said those who had the flight donated to them will be required to report the gift to the state’s Fair Political Practices Association through a Statement of Economic Interest — Form 700.
In an email Fennell said Rieke had been invited to the event and had room on his plane. “It was a great way to get to the meeting and Rex’s swearing in all in a half a day.”
Sundberg told the Outpost he paid $217 for his seat on the Zabel-run corporation’s plane because as a governor’s appointee to the California Coastal Commission he has to do everything by the book. “There are strict rules,” he said. “They could kick you off if you took something for free from a transportation company.” He said he wrote a personal check for the $217 “so I had proof.”
This fare, according to Zabel, was calculated by taking the total operating costs and dividing them by the number of passengers.
Photos from the RCRC event posted on social media show the four supervisors — Sundberg, Bohn, Bass and Fennell — celebrating Bohn’s new position with a variety of local guests. Zabel was there along with Rob McBeth of Arcata’s O&M Industries, Humboldt County Public Works Director Tom Mattson (who was also in Sacramento on other county business), former Eureka City Manager and current Humboldt Community Services District board member David Tyson, Sheriff Honsal, Rieke, D’Amico, and Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, a marijuana industry group.
Bohn’s son Trevor also posted photos from the event, including this one, which shows Zabel in the background:
Mercer-Fraser, as you may recall, is currently petitioning the county with a controversial re-zone request for property it owns along the Mad River near Glendale. The Eureka construction firm wants the zoning on its 13.5-acre parcel changed to heavy industrial so it can build a 5,000-square-foot commercial cannabis extraction manufacturing facility (a hash lab, effectively) onsite.
A recommendation to approve the rezone request — along with a special permit for the manufacturing facility — was narrowly approved by the Humboldt County Planning Commission earlier this month despite vociferous objections from some local residents and dire warnings from staff and board members of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, who turned out in force to argue that allowing heavy industrial activity on the property, which lies entirely within the Mad River’s 100-year floodplain, would jeopardize the water supply for roughly two-thirds of Humboldt County residents.
Project proponents, meanwhile, noted that Mercer-Fraser has had a gravel mining operation at that location for years, and the underlying land use designation was already changed during the county’s General Plan Update process, along with other properties upstream. Therefore, they argue, the zoning needs to be changed for the sake of consistency with the established land use. And they say that since the cannabis extraction facility would operate on a closed-loop system it poses no risk the the nearby water supply.
The rezone and special permit request is now being appealed to the Board of Supervisors, meaning Sundberg will play a key role in deciding whether to approve or deny the Mercer-Fraser request. And some say the Fifth District supervisor opened himself to criticism by accepting a ride on Zabel’s plane, whether he paid for the seat or not.
“I would think this would raise a lot of concerns for people in the community,” said Ryan Emenaker, a professor of political science at College of the Redwoods.
Emenaker said there are two ways to look at the ethical requirements of elected officials. One is by the letter of the law, and Emenaker said he’d be surprised if Sundberg’s actions violated any legal statutes. “But the higher-level requirement is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” he said. Sundberg’s plane ride, he believes, crossed that line.
“I would like to get that flight, too, [but] nobody’s going to offer it to me,” Emenaker said. He noted that there are no commercial flights between Humboldt County and Sacramento, and regarding Sundberg he said, “You’re getting this additional perk purely because of the position you’re in. I think it would at least appear to the broader public that the reason this benefit was extended was to influence or sway the vote in some way.”
Reached by phone on Tuesday, Zabel seemed to find that suggestion absurd. He said the flight was his idea and had been planned for weeks. “I was already going that way,” he said. Told that some might consider it inappropriate for a CEO with a controversial project before the county to donate private plane rides to county staff and an elected official, Zabel insisted that’s not how things work.
“Wouldn’t you agree that any project that comes before the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors, it’s not a matter of whether you know or don’t know [the applicant]; it’s based on the merits of the project?” Zabel said. He added that the plane is available for anyone to lease.
The Outpost asked Sundberg whether hitching a ride on Zabel’s plane creates at least the appearance of impropriety.
“I hope not,” he said. “I mean, I had to pay the full amount.”
Sundberg went on to say that if not for the ride on Zabel’s plane he wouldn’t have been able to attend the RCRC event because he needed to be at a “State of McKinleyville” meeting the following morning. He also said he planned to meet with both the Humboldt Municipal Water District and Mercer-Fraser personnel in an effort to “work something out”
Zabel, it should be noted, is Sundberg’s appointee to the county’s Aviation Advisory Committee. Is Sundberg’s relationship with Zabel too cozy? Kathleen Lee, a lecturer in the politics department at Humboldt State University, said such distinctions can be tough to draw in the realm of local politics.
“When you look at the way local government operates, there’s a lot of cronyism behind the scenes, just because it involves so many personal relationships,” Lee said, speaking about local governments generally and not Humboldt County in particular. “People get elected not so much because of their ideological or political positions but because they have more contacts in the community.”
Lee agreed with Emenaker that elected officials should consider both the letter of the law and appearances. “But when you come down to appearances, bad appearances is something that needs to be addressed at the ballot box,” Lee said.
Asked to comment specifically on Sundberg’s decision to fly on Zabel’s plane, Lee said, “It seems very cozy, especially seeing as you have a pending controversial upcoming decision.” But she also noted that county supervisors aren’t like judges; they’re not required to be impartial.
“They have a perspective,” she said. “I think you see this with the entirety of the burgeoning cannabis economy. There’s been this interesting ideological flip.” Liberal local elected officials, she said, “tend to want more restrictions than [the officials] who tend to be more conservative, more pro-business.”
Now that cannabis operations are legitimate business in California, established business leaders like Zabel are getting in on the game. And they have friends in high places. Supervisors, Lee said, come into office with “a whole set of relationships in the community. It’s generally why they get elected.”
Bass made a similar point. “We all know each other in this community; we’re all friends,” she said. “A lot of us have been friends way prior to our political world.”
But Jennifer Kalt, director of Humboldt Baykeeper and a critic of Mercer-Fraser’s Glendale project, said personal relationships shouldn’t be allowed to influence public policy.
“I’m constantly shocked how people just shrug and act like the oligarchy of developers around here is just the way it is, like there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said. As for Sundberg’s flight to Sacramento, Kalt said, “I think it’s outrageous.”
People contacted for this story seem to fall into one of two categories — those who see accepting a ride on Zabel’s plane as a clear breach of political protocol, a decision that calls into question the validity of the pending Mercer-Fraser decision, and those who are taken aback by that perspective, unable to see any cause for concern.
Humboldt County Planning and Building Department Director John H. Ford said via email that Mercer-Fraser’s Glendale project won’t come to the board before late February and more likely early March.