Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Alan Bongio quietly stepped down from his position as chair sometime prior to Thursday’s meeting, handing the reins over to Noah Levy, who stepped up from his vice-chair position to lead the night’s proceedings. The resignation had been requested by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, who unanimously censured Bongio at their September 20 meeting.
Late in yesterday’s meeting, the commission unanimously approved a letter of apology to local Wiyot-area tribes for Bongio’s “insensitive” and “racist” comments during an August 18 hearing — though not before quibbling over the draft language. The debate over how best to wordsmith the mea culpa included a warning from Bongio about the risks of being too “woke” or “politically correct.”
There was some confusion at the outset, with Levy identifying himself as “vice chair” before correcting himself after everyone had recited the Pledge of Allegiance. The chyron displayed on streaming video also identified Levy as vice chair, and when Bongio first appeared onscreen the chyron incorrectly listed him as “chair.” Both titles were later corrected mid-stream.
However, it’s not clear whether the informal changing of the guard, which occurred behind closed doors, was sufficient public process to make Levy the new chair on a full-time basis. Attempts to get an answer from county staff on Friday were unsuccessful.
During the meeting’s first public comment period, local anti-vaccine activist Donnie Creekmore defended Bongio, saying the longtime commissioner had “failed to show any semblance of racism.” He also accused local tribes of embracing “the woke-left ideology of weakness.”
Creekmore’s perspective was countered by a Trinidad resident who identified himself only as Andrew. He asked for Bongio to resign from the commission altogether over the recent revelation, published in the North Coast Journal, that Bongio personally performed concrete work on the property of local developer Travis Schneider and yet never publicly disclosed his labor. Schneider’s various permit violations on his “dream home” project, located on Walker Point Road near the Indianola cutoff, were the topic of the commission’s heated August 18 hearing.
“That’s a major breach of trust with the public,” Andrew said, regarding Bongio’s undeclared concrete work. “Whether or not he was paid, he still did work that was of value. That is a breach of trust … and it warrants his dismissal from the commission.”
The commission moved on to other business but returned to the matter of the apology letter about an hour later.
Commissioner Peggy O’Neill, who represents the Fifth District, said she didn’t like the way the draft apology was written because it insinuated that “as a group that we did nothing and that we’re all responsible. I don’t feel responsible for someone else’s behavior,” she said.
O’Neill said she did speak up during the August 18 hearing, and she reiterated her objections to comments made that night, including Bongio’s repeated use of the term “the Indians” to refer to two or three different Wiyot-area tribes — the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, the Blue Lake Rancheria and the Wiyot Tribe.
“It’s not just a word, but sometimes it’s how you use that word that makes it inappropriate … ,” she said. “I mean, even though they are Native American people, they are different and you can’t lump them together … . I think in that regard it was insensitive to use that word the way it was being used, because you have different histories, you have different languages, you have different experiences that have gone on and you need to be respectful of that.”
She added, “I went home that night very upset, feeling like I had gone back in time and wondering if if everyone really knows our local history.”
Bongio then spoke up, saying he was “not trying to make excuses for any of that meeting” but then adding that if the commission fails to “ask hard questions” and “delve into things” then it is “just as big of an injustice to the County of Humboldt.”
“And there’s some things that didn’t add up that night,” Bongio said. “I’m just saying that I think we run a real risk when we’re so worried about being politically correct or I don’t even know what the term [is] — woke enough. … I’m just saying, we need to have respect in the discourse and I will say it was not my best night. … I’m just trying to be honest here, but I think we go down a really slippery slope if we don’t be open to talk about the project and the whole thing, whatever it is … .”
After Bongio’s comments, Planning and Building Director John Ford asked the commission to take a break, saying, “I just sense that this could get very, very sensitive. … I don’t want to avoid the conversation, but I also am concerned about how this conversation can go.”
Levy said he was open to that suggestion but wanted to let Commissioner Melanie McAvour speak first. The commission never wound up taking the requested break.
McAvour also quibbled with some of the language in the draft apology letter, saying she was concerned about signing it when she had recused herself from the August 18 hearing, at which she participated only as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria.
“I agree with Commissioner O’Neill, that people should take responsibility for their own actions and words, and I don’t necessarily agree with a letter that is all-encompassing, especially if others feel uncomfortable with that,” McAvour said.
She suggested that the letter could invite tribal representatives to a luncheon rather than a meeting to help repair the damaged relationship with the county, and she said that while Schneider should bear responsibility for knowing the terms of his coastal development permit, the county planning department also bears some responsibility for not catching his violations sooner.
“The monitoring was really, really poor, as it often is in environmental impact assessment generally, honestly. It’s the weak link,” McAvour said.
The commissioners debated other aspects of the apology’s wording, with some pushing for it to say the balance of the commission “did not do enough to address the problem” rather than “did nothing to address the problem in the moment.” That change was made.
Fourth District Commissioner Mike Newman sought to “take the temperature” of his colleagues by asking their thoughts on removing the words “racist” and “biased” while leaving in “insensitive.”
“I think ‘insensitive’ is enough, there, in my opinion,” he said.
O’Neill initially agreed, reiterating her discomfort at taking responsibility for actions that weren’t her own. “I think that that evening there was a few insensitive and biased and racist opinions, but they didn’t come from all of us,” she said.
Ford then spoke up for the draft language. “In all honesty,” he said, “part of a good apology is to completely own what happened and not try to understate it and make it seem like it wasn’t as bad as it really was. And this letter was written to forcefully state that what happened was inappropriate.”
“I do agree that I could have done more,” O’Neill said, “and I felt really bad, that I didn’t do more in the moment.”
After some more discussion, Commissioner Thomas Mulder made the motion to approve the letter with the minor edits that had been made. Newman seconded the motion, and the roll call vote to approve was unanimous. Below is the text of the letter:
Dear Jason Ramos and Tribal Council:
The intent of this letter is to express our sincere apology to the Wiyot People. At the Planning Commission meeting of August 18, 2022, several comments were made that were inappropriate and traumatic. First, we as a body unequivocally recognize that these comments were insensitive, racist, inconsistent with the values of the County of Humboldt, biased and understandably may have shaken your faith in the impartiality of this Commission. We further recognize that the comments added to past injury and injustices resulting from governmental actions. We, as the Humboldt County Planning Commission concede we did not do enough to address the problem and therefore, are all responsible. We understand this has damaged the relationship between the Planning Commission and the Wiyot people and that cultivating a positive relationship with the Wiyot people will require time and commitment.
We apologize for each of our roles in this event and ask your forgiveness. If you would be willing, we would like to schedule a luncheon outside the Board of Supervisors Chambers to hear from you, grow in our understanding and seek restoration.
Should you decide to meet with us, we would welcome your input on additional steps the Commission could take that you feel would contribute to our individual and collective growth and facilitate a rebuild of our important relationship.
Thank you for your consideration,
Humboldt County Planning Commission
Alan Bongio, Noah Levy, Peggy O’Neill, Thomas Mulder , Brian Mitchell, Mike Newman, Melanie McAvour (recused from August 18 meeting)
- Heated Meeting Sparks Accusations of Dishonesty and Discrimination, Opening Rift Between Tribes and Humboldt County Planning Commission
- Despite Silence From Tribes, Mega-Home Builder Optimistic Ahead of Tonight’s Continued Planning Commission Hearing to Address Permit Violation Fallout
- After Rebukes and Apologies for Bongio’s ‘Disrespectful’ Comments, Planning Commission Defers Decision on Mega-Home Permits
- County Supes to Consider Censure of Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio for Inappropriate Conduct
- Bohn Makes the Motion, Supes Unanimously Censure Bongio for Racist Remarks, Move to Remove Him as Chair of Planning Commission
- Bongio to Step Down as Chair; Planning Commission Set to Consider Apology for His ‘Insensitive, Racist’ Comments
- A Tour Through the Half-Built Dream Mansion of Travis Schneider, Who Remains Hopeful Amid Mounting Permit Problems
NOTE: This post has been edited to reflect that Donnie Creekmore does not identify as a cannabis farmer.