On Tuesday afternoon, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to censure Planning Commission Chair Alan Bongio for derogatory and racist remarks he made during recent meetings.
The board’s motion, which was made by First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, the man who appointed Bongio to the Planning Commission nearly a decade ago, also called for Bongio to be removed — or to remove himself — from the chair position, though he must evidently take that step voluntarily since the board lacks the authority to order his removal.
While discussing the matter, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone revealed that the county received a formal complaint on Monday from the Wiyot Tribe. The six-page complaint, which you can download and read in its entirety by clicking here, says Bongio used “racist and offensive language” at the Planning Commission’s August 18 hearing.
The complaint also alleges that Bongio created a hostile environment for tribal government staff and that his comments and actions revealed bias in favor of applicant Travis Schneider.
The complaint, which is signed by Tribal Administrator Michelle Vassel, Tribal Chair Ted Hernandez and the balance of the Wiyot Tribal Council, goes on to say that Planning Commissioner Melanie McCavour was given an unfair advantage in her capacity as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, and that her dual roles create a conflict of interest while giving her “special privileges” in conversing with the rest of the Planning Commission.
The complaint was submitted “in the hope that the County of Humboldt Government will take action,” though no specific action is requested. “Chair Bongio’s conduct the night of August 18, 2022 was shocking, shameful and prejudice [sic] and I hope not reflective of the Humboldt County Government,” it concludes.
Madrone, in his introductory remarks, called out Bongio’s behavior at both the August 18 meeting as well as the September 1 follow-up, saying, “It certainly did seem to me that the chair’s actions and demeanor at those meetings showed a strong disregard for respect and decorum with derogatory and racist remarks that were made by the chair towards local Native American tribes and representatives.”
He proposed establishing a formal code of conduct and a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policy to govern all county boards, pointing out that the Planning Commission was presented with a proposed set of rules in the past year or two but failed to adopt them.
Madrone also recommended that the board formally censure Bongio, adding that ideally he’d like the board to recommend that Bohn remove Bongio from the commission, “but our current rules don’t really allow us to do that as a board.” And he suggested that Bongio should be required to undergo DEI training.
County Administrative Officer Elishia Hayes told the board that the county’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team, headed up by Dr. Jeremy Clark and Neftali Rubio-Mills, recently asked for county leaders to send a letter to local tribes outlining the county’s efforts with DEI work “and really just showing support for the tribes, who are valued community partners for the county.”
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell and Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass expressed displeasure that the Planning Commission previously failed to adopt the county’s recommended code of conduct, and Hayes said the board has the authority to require it of them.
Clark stepped forward to address the board. He recounted some of the county’s recent DEI initiatives, including a series of commitments and pronouncements made on July 19. “[A]nd anytime any agent of the county operates in a manner that is inconsistent or antithetical with those, you will likely hear from from our committee,” Clark said.
Hayes said that she’s the one charged with investigating formal complaints, and she’s working with the Human Resources Division and county counsel to address the one received yesterday from the Wiyot Tribe.
About 25 minutes into the hour-plus discussion, Bohn finally weighed in, saying that, at his request, county staff arranged a DEI training for Bongio.
“I’ve been called every name in the book this week, [told] I should resign,” Bohn said. “I guess we’re born at the hip with our appointments and things like that,” he added sarcastically. “And I appreciate everybody who’s written and especially those that want me to resign.”
Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson spoke up, saying Bongio’s language was not just offensive to the people in the room and listening to the meeting elsewhere.
“I want to speak to the damage that was also done to the relationships with the county with our tribal counterparts, not just the ones directly involved but those also listening and hearing and the wounds that has reopened,” Wilson said. “From an institutional perspective, we need to say we’re sorry about that, we apologize about that — recognize what has happened and then re-commit ourselves to those relationships.”
Bohn then addressed the matter head-on.
“I guarantee you, it hurt me more than probably any of you to hear what [Bongio] said, because my relationship with quite a few tribal leaders is very solid, and I have since talked with [Bongio] about that at length. And as Supervisor Madrone said, we all have bad days. We all say things we shouldn’t say … and he got caught up in the fever. And it was bad. And I’ve told Alan I was disappointed. [That] doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate him [and] his 55 years of friendship.”
He went on to commend Bongio for his 10 years on the Planning Commission “without any written complaints,” though he acknowledged that some people have complained verbally about Bongio being tough on cannabis.
“His attendance is second to none,” Bohn continued, adding that the fact Bongio was recently re-appointed as chair shows his colleagues’ respect for him.
“Now, does he lose that respect the other night? I would hope so,” Bohn said. He went on to say that Bongio has agreed to attend more DEI training and has tried to reach out to the local tribes.
“And we can all learn from our tribes,” Bohn said. “They’ve got a great approach on managing the lands. We’re seeing that [with] fire; we’re seeing that culturally. They’ve got some some great ideas.”
Bohn said he agreed with the request to censure Bongio and would agree to ask him to step down as chair. “But if we’re going to ask every one of us that ever makes a mistake — .” He left that thought unfinished but went on to reiterate his disappointment in Bongio’s actions.
“I support him going forward and learning about the cultural aspects of our native population, and we’ve all learned a little bit about Native populations in the last two years, four years, 10 years,” Bohn said. “I think we’ve all learned a little bit [about] where they stand and that we have to respect all native — we can’t pick. We have to respect them all. And so I would make the motion to censor him [sic] and have him step down as chair, if he decides. That would be up to him.”
Bohn said Bongio doesn’t appear to have a history of such behavior. “It was a bad day,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to him.”
Bongio wanted to attend today’s meeting but was out of town, Bohn said.
“I will still support my friend,” he continued. “I will still be appalled at the reprehensible statements he made and the way they were presented. … and much like the Native Americans and ourselves and what we all do, we’re not going to get anywhere unless we’re forgiving.”
Bohn said he doesn’t like the idea of, “If you offended us, we cancel you.”
“I just can’t bring myself to it. Because I’ve spent 68 years on this planet, a majority of those trying to help our community, build our community and hopefully sometimes in there, being forgiving with people … ,” he said.
Bohn again advocated for further training and education for Bongio to “make him a better person, which is going to make him a better planning commissioner.”
He concluded, “I can’t fire my friend. I’m sorry.” He then made a motion to have the board censure Bongio, ask him to step down as chair of the Planning Commission and participate in further training.
Wilson asked whether Bohn would be willing to make an addition to his motion directing staff to send a letter to the tribes acknowledging the situation and inviting them to connect with the county’s DEI staff. Bohn said he was fine with that suggestion.
Wilson spoke up again, saying he wanted to push back against the notion that a solution can be found simply through education and training.
“It’s not just about learning about another person’s culture,” he said. “It’s really having to look deep inside yourself about the biases that we carry, and how do we move on that arc towards ridding ourselves of those biases, or working really hard on that? That is actually the real work … .”
Wilson said Bongio’s recent comments revealed deep-seated biases that he’s been carrying. “It’s not like it just showed up one day and there it was,” he said. “And it’s going to take work to remove it. … And I’m saying that we all carry all kinds of biases, that we need to work on those things, challenge ourselves and appreciate those challenges.”
Wilson said he’d like to see that work from the Planning Commission as well as himself, adding that there are also biases around “who you know,” who owns land and resources and who’s in control.
The board went on to discuss the mechanics of getting Bongio to step down as chair, given the board’s limited authority over the Planning Commission.
Bohn said he’s hopeful that Bongio will be “respectful enough of the motion to resign at the next meeting,” but Madrone expressed doubt about the board’s ability to ensure that result.
Finally, Bohn said that if Bongio refuses to give up his chairmanship, Bohn will ask him to resign. “I think that will take care of all your problems,” he said, adding once again an expression of appreciation for Bongio as a friend as well as someone who “pounds nails” for a living and “knows how to get project through and what it takes.”
Madrone thanked Bohn for that commitment and for his willingness to see how serious the situation was.
The board unanimously approved the motion.
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