The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will meet on Monday to consider updating its own code of conduct and ethics rules following a formal employee complaint that accuses Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell of misconduct.
The complaint, which was written by an unidentified county planner and emailed to Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson on Dec. 30, accuses Bushnell of inappropriately interfering in the cannabis permitting process by personally advocating on behalf of an applicant while disregarding evidence that the applicant had violated a number of county codes.
It also says Bushnell lost her cool, yelling and slamming a door during a confrontational meeting that included Bushnell, the applicant, county staff and Planning and Building Director John Ford.
“Michelle Bushnell preferred to discredit, threaten, and berate me rather than review the facts and allow me, and by extension our department, to enforce Humboldt County Code and State Law,” the complaint says.
In an interview, Bushnell acknowledged getting upset and accidentally slamming a door during the meeting, behavior she recognized as inappropriate. She apologized to everyone involved — save the complainant, who’d left the room — later that same day, she said, adding that she believed the dispute had been resolved in a follow-up meeting with the complainant and other staff members.
More broadly, Bushnell said that while she has attended a number of meetings with cannabis applicants in an effort to help them navigate the permitting process, she has never asked staff to bend the rules or deviate from the county’s cannabis ordinances.
“Never do I ask for [staff] to ever bend a rule or go away from an ordinance,” she said. “Absolutely not. I would never do that.”
Monday’s meeting was called not in response to the complaint itself but rather because of a Public Records Act request submitted by the Outpost seeking a copy of the document and related documents.
“Because you did a PRA on it, I was like, somebody obviously still cares [about the incident], so let’s get it out in the open,” Bushnell said. She suggested that whomever leaked information about the complaint to the Outpost was acting on purely political motivations.
“Whoever’s bringing this forward, whoever contacted you? Shame on them,” she said. “They’ve never talked to me. They don’t know the circumstances. And shame on them. All’s they want is a story and to belittle me.”
The Outpost was forwarded an un-redacted copy of the complaint, which we quote from below, though we’re not revealing the identity of the planner who submitted it. (The county released a redacted version of it on Friday.)
It describes two meetings that took place in December, the first on Tuesday, Dec. 28 and the second on Dec. 29, 2021. At the first, the unidentified planner was meeting with Ford “to discuss the history of violations and inaccurate information I had discovered in a commercial cannabis application.”
The complaint continues:
The information I presented to the Director showed that the applicant had (1) cultivated an excess of approximately 2,159 square feet of Mixed Light cultivation [beyond the permitted square footage] each year for three consecutive years, (2) harvested approximately 1-acre of trees without permits as confirmed by CAL FIRE, and (3) submitted inaccurate Operations and Site Plans to the planning department. The applicant had also been accused of trucking water to the site, leading myself, the assigned planner, to question whether there was a reliable source of irrigation water onsite.
Before the meeting, the planner had notified the applicant that their interim permit was set to expire on Dec. 31, three days hence, and would not be renewed.
Upon receiving the news, the applicant evidently reached out to Bushnell because, according to the complaint, the Second District supervisor called Ford twice during the meeting, expressing concern that the applicant was about to lose 400 pounds of processed cannabis unless their interim permit got renewed for the 2022 cultivation season.
“The Director and I agreed we would extend the interim permit through January 31, 2022, providing the applicant ample time to pay the $25,908.00 penalty fee, bring the site back into compliance, and provide our department with accurate Operations and Site Plans,” the complaint says.
The applicant requested a meeting for the following day, This time, Bushnell accompanied the applicant and the applicant’s agent to Ford’s office. The planner was also in attendance.
According to the complaint, the planner was reviewing a packet of documentation showing evidence of violations on the property when Bushnell reached out and “pulled them abruptly from my grasp.”
A few minutes later, during a dispute over whether and why the applicant had removed trees on the property, Bushnell began raising her voice, disputing the planner’s allegations and telling them that their job was to “get people through the permitting process,” according to the complaint.
“I responded that it was my job to ensure the project met the requirements of the ordinance
and I conducted measurements of the tree removal using aerial imagery,” the complaint continues. “Michelle Bushnell then stood
from her chair, crossed the room, and yelled ‘you better stop before I lose it!’ Following her yelling the
threat a second time, I responded ‘you already have [lost it]!’”
On her way out of Ford’s office, Bushnell slammed the door “hard and loud enough to make the walls shake,” the complaint reads. “No more than 1 minute later she returned and was visibly crying.”
The meeting remained tense, with Bushnell asking the planner to appreciate what was at stake for the applicant while the planner reiterated that their duty was to the public as a whole. The complaint describes the planner and Bushnell glaring at each other: “We did not break eye contact until a question was directed to me by the applicant’s agent.”
As the tension escalated, the planner grew “extremely frustrated” with Bushnell’s manner of communicating, “and I looked at Director Ford while gesturing to Michelle Bushnell and yelled, ‘Are you going to let her talk to me like that?’ Director Ford remained silent. I plead[ed] once more, stating ‘Do something about this!’ Director Ford then directed me to leave the meeting and work on another project.”
The complaint goes on to allege that Bushnell’s behavior violated the board’s code of conduct, most notably the provision calling for maintaining a positive workplace environment.
Monday’s agenda also includes a timeline that was evidently compiled by the complainant. It accused Bushnell of speaking to at least one other employee “in a demanding and condescending manner.” It also references an internal planning department dispute about a proposed rainwater catchment pond for Bootleg Farms, LLC, “Michelle Bushnell’s personal commercial cannabis project.”
According to the timeline, planners in the department were requiring a new site plan for Bootleg Farms’s proposed rainwater catchment pond. They wanted the owners to find a location that didn’t require the removal of any trees or interfere with an onsite drainage ditch before the planning department would sign off on any development permits for the project.
The timeline goes on to say that after meeting with Bushnell, Ford approved the proposed location of the pond, calling the case “a special circumstance.”
“There is a timber harvest and oak restoration plan on the parcel, [w]hich John Ford believes warrants the removal of the trees and placement of the pond in that area,” the timeline says.
‘I was upset’
In a phone interview, Bushnell disputed much about the planner’s description of the Dec. 29 meeting, though their accounts did line up in several key particulars. For one thing, Bushnell agreed that the atmosphere was tense.
“It wasn’t going well from the beginning,” she said. “And I didn’t like [the planner’s] attitude towards my constituents. It was terrible. And I said something to [them] about it. [They were] also very defiant to [their] boss in that meeting. [They] looked straight at [their] boss and said, ‘Are you going to do something about her?’ — referring to me.”
Bushnell admitted that her response wasn’t ideal. “It was not great in any form. … And yes, I got upset. Admittedly so,” she said. As for slamming the door and returning with tears in her eyes, Bushnell said she left the office because she didn’t want to lose her composure.
“I didn’t want to yell at that employee, so I stood up and said, ‘I have to leave this room or I’m gonna lose my shit.’”
The door did slam, she said. “It wasn’t intentional but it did. And I could see where it would have startled them, but that part was not intentional. I went out and went into another room … and took a couple breaths.”
When she came back in she asked everyone but Ford to leave. “And yes, I was upset and there might have been tears in my eyes,” she said. “It was out of frustration. I felt super frustrated for my constituents.”
Reached by phone on Friday, Ford said he found the complaint very one-sided. “I would not characterize [the meeting] like that,” he said.
He explained that it’s not uncommon for supervisors to request and even attend meetings between applicants and himself. What’s less common is for line staff, like this planner, to attend.
Ford said he considers it part of staff training to help line staff view things from the administrative level, to “teach them how to think in a broader context. … Often when issues are raised to my level, there’s not necessarily a black and white decision to be made,” he said.
As for her own cannabis project, Bushnell said she was in the application process two years before she was elected and upon her election she added her husband to the LLC and has mostly stayed away from the permitting process since.
When the planning department initially denied the permit for the rainwater catchment pond, Bushnell went to the front counter of the department office and asked what they needed.
“They said ‘a letter from CalFire,’” she recalled. She said that was fine and told the staff to call her forester to see if they could get what they needed. She insisted that she did not exert any pressure on staff, merely telling them, “If it’s a no, it’s a no. We’ll figure it out.”
We asked Ford about the pond situation, too. He said this case was indeed a special circumstance — not because the project belongs to a county supervisor but because of the facts on the ground. The trees slated for removal were oaks that were going to be taken down regardless of the cannabis project, he said.
“The fact of the matter is that all those trees were part of an oak woodland that was being removed anyway as part of a timber harvest plan,” Ford said. “They were being replaced, with revegetation as part of an oak woodland restoration project that was being done independent of the pond.”
After the planner’s complaint came in, the county administrative officer, Elishia Hayes, met with the interim human resources director and the complainant to discuss the incident and potential remedies. A staff report for Monday’s meeting says, “The complainant cited processes memorialized in the Code of Conduct, however agreed to a meeting with Supervisor Bushnell prior to escalation of the matter.”
That meeting took place on Jan. 24, according to the staff report. Bushnell and the complainant were present along with the complainant’s union representative, the county administrative officer (CAO) and Ford.
“The meeting was viewed by all as productive and focused on problem solving and improved communications,” the staff report says. “Following this meeting, the CAO met with the complainant and the union representative to discuss next steps. All parties, including the complainant, agreed that the policy as written was flawed and that the policy should be revised to follow a path similar to that which has been followed for other employees and elected officials.”
The problem with the policy as written, the report says, is that it calls for complaints against county supervisors to be discussed in open session, before any fact-finding or interviewing of potential witnesses. This process “presents unique challenges related to maintaining complainant confidentiality, which must be protected,” the staff report says.
On Jan. 12, Bushnell participated in a training on “Effective Communication, and Board Roles and Responsibilities.”
“I recognized that I needed to possibly say things better,” she told the Outpost. “Quite frankly, if I hadn’t been emotional [that day] I don’t think that would have happened, but it did. That’s the bottom line.”
What set her off, she said, was the planner’s attitude.
“Our county is supposed to be a service department. We’re supposed to care about our people,” she said. “And so it’s hard for me when I don’t see kindness.”
The Outpost has yet to get a response to its Public Records Act request, which was submitted on March 24. State law gives public agencies 10 days to reply to such requests.
Late Friday morning we sent an email to the CAO’s office asking this: If everyone involved in this situation believed that the supervisors’ code of conduct and ethics policy was needed revisions, why wasn’t that done before now? Why did it take a Public Records Act request to prompt the change? We have yet to hear back.
On Friday evening, the CAO’s office sent the following response from County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes:
County policies, especially rules around personal conduct, are important for our staff and the community. In this case, we drafted the revised policy at the end of January. From there we still needed to have it reviewed by the union, which was a steady partner in this process, get the staff report together, notify everyone, and agendize it. It’s a multiple step process, and we’ve had a lot of other policy issues happening over the last 2 months. I take accountability for failing to get this policy back in front of the Board more timely. The necessity to change the policy was brought to light by the complaint against Supervisor Bushnell and thus it made sense to discuss both issues at the same time.