The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors kicked off Tuesday’s meeting with a procession of speakers offering thank-yous and fare-thee-wells to County Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen, whose last day after five years on the job will be Friday.
“This is like losing a beloved cast member of a TV show,” Board Chair and Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass said.
Nilsen’s tenure with the county lasted more than two decades as she moved up the ranks from medical office assistant through a variety of other positions, culminating in CAO, a job Bass equated to being the CEO of a half-billion-dollar company. She was hired for that top staff position in 2015.
Elishia Hayes, the county’s chief operating officer/assistant county administrative officer, was approved to serve as acting CAO.
State legislators Senator Mike McGuire and Assemblymember Jim Wood both appeared via Zoom to offer praise and gratitude.
“She has truly devoted herself to this county and devoted her entire adult life to the people of this amazing community,” McGuire said, adding that she’s leaving the county government stronger than she found it.
Wood echoed those sentiments, saying he doesn’t envy the next person to step into her shoes.
Sean Quincey, the county’s deputy CAO, said he couldn’t have asked for a better role model, and he presented a video in which a number of county and state officials appeared — along with a surprise cameo from former Humboldt County CAO Philip Smith-Hanes — to sing Nilsen’s praises.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn got choked up when it was his turn to speak. “Amy, thanks,” he concluded. “Thanks for everything.”
Nilsen said she appreciated the sentiments but found the attention “completely embarrassing and a little bit mortifying.” She then encouraged the board to move on, because they had a busy agenda.
Garberville Veterans Memorial Hall
The vets hall in Garberville, a beloved gathering spot built in 1960, has fallen into a sorry state of disrepair. It has been closed since 2016 due to issues with mold, water infiltration, structural damage, accessibility and proliferation of toxic materials including lead and asbestos.
On Tuesday, Sean Meehan, the county’s deputy director of facilities management with the Department of Public Works, briefed the board on the details of the building damage and offered three options for moving forward. The first was to demolish and reconstruct the building in its entirety, including space for the State Courts at an estimated cost of $4.5 million.
The second option, not recommended by staff, was to restore the building while leaving some structural elements intact, a project with a projected cost of $3.6 million.
The third option — the one the board ultimately settled on — was to demolish the existing building and construct a smaller one without room for the State Courts.
A group of veterans appeared via Zoom from Garberville. One, Doug Battles, thanked the board for its diligence in inspecting the damage but said the county needs to do a better job at communicating. Another, Jeffrey Hedin, said vets should be allowed to help with building maintenance. Several voiced support for the first and most expensive option, saying it’s important to locals to have court services available.
During the ensuing board discussion, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said he fully supports that first option, but Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson asked a variety of questions about the finances of the project, including whether the State Courts would contribute to those expenses.
Nilsen reminded the board that the county has a contractual agreement to offer space to the courts, though that obligation could be met with mobile buildings such as kiosks. The courts have not provided services in Southern Humboldt in roughly five years, she said, but they’ve expressed a desire to have space available eight hours a day, five days per week.
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who has made the vets hall a top priority since she first ran for office, highlighted the importance of the facility to the community but echoed Wilson’s concerns about the added expense of the first option. She wound up making a motion to take option number three, rebuilding a smaller facility without space for the courts, in part because of the complications that would ensue by having to include state architects.
“I think this is a way we can get this building done now,” Bushnell said. “Is it fair? No, it’s not all fair. … But i do think this is what will work the best for all parties involved.”
Bohn seconded the motion, and after some discussion it was passed unanimously.
The board then spent a very long time discussing when and how the county should go about fully reopening its various facilities to employees and the public. Should everyone be required to wear masks? Or only those who aren’t vaccinated? Should the county take people’s word on vaccination status? Or require proof?
Human Resources Director Linda Le offered an overview of the latest direction from the state legislature and Cal/OSHA, and she told the board members that they had a number of decisions to make. With risk management in mind, Le recommended a conservative approach, one that would require all employees to wear masks at work, allow many employees to continue working remotely and have the board meetings remain virtual through September.
Sheriff Billy Honsal was among a handful of officials who advocated fewer restrictions. He suggested that department heads who so choose should be allowed to let the public to go maskless as long as they’ve been vaccinated, and taking their word for that status.
Bohn voiced frustration at Le’s suggestions, including three more months of virtual meetings. He said that with COVID variants afoot and a good chunk of the public still not vaccinated, seems like the pandemic may never be all-the-way over.
“You’re putting the fear of God in us,” he said. “I don’t know that we need the fear of God. Maybe we just need to trust in Him more.”
Wilson was annoyed for different reasons. “For me maybe the most frustrating part is that 99 percent of what we’re doing is protecting unvaccinated people from other unvaccinated people,” he said, noting that while a few people have medical reasons for not getting vaccinated, the vast majority of those now getting sick and dying have chosen to forgo the shots. “The solution is there,” he said. “This is a completely preventable situation.”
Madrone made a motion to require all county staff to wear masks through September, but that motion died on the vine.
Wilson, in an effort to move the deliberations forward, then made a motion to allow staff to self-attest to their vaccination status and go mask-free if they’ve fully vaccinated (meaning at least two weeks out from their final shot(s)). Wilson wound up voting against his own motion, and he was joined by Madrone. But the other three supervisors voted yes, and the motion passed.
Next up, the board considered what to require of the public. There was some debate about how trustworthy people are, in terms of being honest about their vaccination status, with Wilson and Madrone urging a requirement for universal masking. However, once again, they were outnumbered. The majority voted to simply post signs outside every department saying those who are fully vaccinated are free to go sans masks.
The board next voted 3-2 with Bohn and Bushnell dissenting to continue allowing some employees to work remotely. And lastly, on this item, the board voted along those same lines to keep meeting virtually through September — or until new guidance comes down from the state.
A couple of other items worth noting:
- The county’s economic development team has been scrambling in recent months due to the abrupt announcement from the Smart Business Resource Center, a workforce development agency, that it would stop offering its services and terminate all contracts with the county due to late payments and logistical headaches. On Tuesday, Economic Development Director Scott Adair announced that a new community-based coalition, including the county, HSU, College of the Redwoods and other local community organizations, can take over the programs funded via the Workforce Investment Opportunities Act (WIOA). The board gratefully accepted this turn of events with a unanimous vote to pursue that path.
- The board approved the formation of the Samoa Peninsula Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District, a governmental entity comprised of both public and private partners. According to staff, this new entity will help the local community get funding for a wide variety of public capital improvement projects, including facilities to support aquaculture, wind energy and international communication.