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More than 100 attend Salt River open house; 2017 work on $34 million ecosystem restoration project showcased

From the November 9, 2017 print edition

When you combine a free lunch, compliments of No Brand Burger Stand, with a free bus tour, compliments of Humboldt Transit Authority, you’re likely to get a pretty good turnout for a sunny Saturday afternoon meeting in Ferndale. And that’s what happened last weekend when the Salt River Watershed Council (SRWC) hosted an event that began at the Veterans Hall in Ferndale and extended to Port Kenyon Road, attracting a crowd of more than 100 people, who received a bird’s eye view of 2017’s version of the Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project (SRERP).

Ferndale Mayor Don Hindley, who has also served for the past year as the chairman of the SRWC, welcomed a standing room only crowd to the event last Saturday and was joined by other leaders in the SRERP in providing an overview of the project, before joining in a guided visit of this year’s project footprint.

“I think you’ll be amazed,” said Hindley in his welcoming remarks to the crowd.

The mayor was referring to progress made in the 2017 chapter of an ambitious and unparalleled restoration project designed to return to a functioning status a river which for the past 100 years had become clogged with sediment, filled with trees and vegetation and inhospitable to everyone and everything that depended upon it.

As reported at Saturday’s meeting and tour event, approximately $34 million has been spent in the SRERP since the first backhoe of sediment was removed in 2013. This year’s phase of the project cost $3.25 million in a bid that was awarded to Eureka’s Figas Construction, a company that removed a reported 200,000 cubic yards of sediment from a relatively small area adjacent to the City of Ferndale’s waste water treatment plant on Port Kenyon Road north of the city limits. The most recent edition of the SRERP also cleared sediment and reestablished Francis Creek as the eastern-most tributary to the Salt River, as well as reconnecting the city’s east side drainage system, all in an effort to eliminate flooding, while returning the waterway as home to fish and wildlife.

In addition to Hindley, Humboldt County Resource Conservation Executive Director Jill Demers also spoke at the event, providing visitors with an historic perspective for the Salt River, as well as a review of accomplishments over the past four years.

“With European settlement in the late 1800s, the productive agricultural land use you see today was established on this landscape,” said Demers. “The Salt River was key to this establishment and it hosted the Port Kenyon area, which at that time was a major port for the shipping industry to move agricultural products to other areas. At that time, Salt River was about 200 feet wide and 15 feet deep.”

Demers then illustrated a series of photos showing how Salt River had degraded to such a point that, just prior to the beginning of the SRERP, it had been narrowed to a simple six-foot wide ditch, completely overwhelmed by sedimentation and vegetation.

According to a 2005 Salt River Watershed Assessment Report produced by the California Department of Fish and Game, both natural causes and changes introduced by early settlers contributed to the dysfunction of Salt River. The 2005 report points out that because of the relatively young geologic age of the Wildcat Mountains south of Ferndale, sediment had readily found its way to the Salt River from its many tributaries, including Coffee, Williams, Francis and Reas Creeks, precipitated in part from the effects of high rainfall in the area, steep terrain and earthquakes. The report also points out the negative impact on Salt River’s ability to drain the swamp, so to speak, due to a multitude of changes introduced by early settlers in the Eel River Valley who converted what historically had been sections of marsh and wetlands to agricultural land uses. Among the changes noted in the report were the introduction of dams, levees and floodgates, the straightening and realignment of tributaries, removal of shade trees and future degradation of the Wildcat Mountains due to major logging operations and development of roads to support those operations.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn also spoke at the event and, after taking a lion’s share of credit for the project’s success, introduced Congressman Jared Huffman, who more appropriately shared that success with the many individuals and agencies who have played key roles over that past three decades.

“It’s really amazing to me what a community can do when it comes together and does the hard work of genuine collaboration,” said Huffman. “This has been in motion, I’m told for about 30 years, so Rex is right, we inherited a lot of good foundational work from our predecessors but that all means we’re deeply invested in keeping this on-track.”

Two buses donated by Humboldt Transit Authority provided transportation for attendees to the 2017 project site, located between Market Street to the east and California Street to the west along Port Kenyon Road. The guide on one of those buses was Jeremy Svelha, an environmental engineer for Eureka-based GHD who played a key role in the project’s design. Svelha pointed out various improvements to Francis Creek, Ferndale’s east side drainage system and to the much larger segment of Salt River benefiting from efforts in 2017.

While standing on the Port Kenyon Bridge and overlooking recently completed work, Svelha and his tour group received a cameo appearance from one of the benefiting landowners along Salt River, who offered his thoughts after stopping his tractor on the bridge.

“Did he (Svelha) tell you that it’s all going to fill back up with sediment again,” said local rancher Willie Lorenzen. “No, he just tells you what he wants you to hear.”

Svelha thanked Mr. Lorenzen for sharing his thoughts, before politely encouraging him to move his tractor out of the way of the tour group. In his closing remarks,

Hindley invited community members to attend the monthly meetings of the SRWC, which are normally scheduled for the third Tuesday each month. At its November meeting (which was changed to the second Tuesday because of Thanksgiving) the SRWC will begin the process of naming a new chairman, as well as fill other board positions, as some of those will be vacated. Once formed, the new SRWC board will be tasked with coming up with a funding mechanism that will allow it to maintain the SRERP, once the final parts of the project are completed and its turned over to the local non-profit.

Over the past three years, the SRWC has discussed the possibility of establishing a district, or utilizing another that may already exist, in order to consider assessing a fee-structured funding alternative applicable to all property owners who will benefit from improvements to Salt River.

In addition to landowners along Salt River who have already benefited from the project, the City of Ferndale has also realized benefits from it, as discharge from its waste water treatment facility can now actually connect to the river via Francis Creek, a function it has not enjoyed during the many years the area was plugged by an abundance of sediment.

Marijuana law approved by council; citizens question new pot ordinance

From the November 2, 2017 print edition

With a unanimous vote of 5-0, the Ferndale City Council approved at its October 18 meeting at Town Hall an ordinance regulating cultivation of marijuana for personal use, while prohibiting commercial activity and outdoor grows within the city limits. The new ordinance is now set to take effect on November 18 following a required 30-day waiting period.

The October 18 meeting was the second reading of Ordinance 2017-04, following a study session on it October 3 and a special meeting on October 10 when the council approved the first reading.

Proposition 64 was approved by the voters in California in 2016, legalizing recreational use of marijuana by persons over the age of 21, along with the framework of a regulatory and licensing system. According to the proposition, local governments have until January 1, 2018, at which time the State of California will begin issuing licenses, to put in place “reasonable” local procedures and regulations that can limit the amount and kind of marijuana activity allowed within their respective jurisdictions.

Among its many provisions, Ferndale’s new ordinance prohibits any commercial activity involving marijuana, requires a permit for anyone who wants to grow the plant for personal use, sets a limit of six plants per permit and restricts such permits to indoor grows only.

Several members of the public in attendance at the October 18 meeting stated concerns with the ordinance, while at the same time stating that they had not attended any of the previous meetings and had not actually read the ordinance.

“We as a society have forgotten what marijuana is,” said Centerville Road resident Rachel Harrison. “It’s a drug and we don’t need it in our small community where it leads to other psychedelic drugs. It is indeed a gateway drug. We have three bars and that should be good enough.” One member of the public, who did not provide the council with her name, asked why the ordinance was moving so fast in the approval process.

“The reason why, as you say, we’re rushing it is the fact that on January 1 the state issues a license for marijuana and we don’t have an ordinance in place by then, we fall under state rules and we couldn’t do anything for one year,” explained Mayor Don Hindley.

Several in the audience voiced concerns about the potential impact the smell of marijuana might have on neighboring property owners and the general public from those permitted by the city to have indoor grows of six plants. Councilman Michael Sweeney pointed out ordinance restrictions that prohibit the smell from reaching beyond the permitted site, as well as the required inspection process that would be in place to eliminate such issues.

Council member Dan Brown didn’t seem to think that the impact of Prop. 64 and the impending local ordinance would be a problem for local residents.

“I think the abundance that’s available, I don’t know that any people are going to want to grow anyway, or if they want to got through all the hassle to go through this (the ordinance requirements),” said Brown.

Enforcement of the new ordinance was another segment discussed at the meeting, with Ferndale Police Chief Bret Smith asked to weigh in.

“It’s not like the police are going to arrest,” said Smith. “We’re talking about code enforcement and zoning issues, more than we’re talking about criminal (issues). I think in terms of enforcement, we’re going to have a code issue.”

Also approved by the council, on a 4-1 vote, was the first reading of Ordinance 2017-05, a regulation that will place limitations for parking on Main Street. As presented, the parking ordinance would place a limit of two hours parking on those portions of State Highway 211 where signage is established from 6 am – 6 pm. Ferndale resident Dick Hooley requested that the ordinance be more specific as to what specific portion of 211 would fall under the provisions of the proposed ordinance.

“I live on Main Street, and I don’t want to be limited to two hours parking in front of my house,” said Hooley.

The council voted to amend the ordinance so that it specifies that it will apply to the section of 211 from Shaw Avenue to Ocean Avenue. Councilmember Patrick O’Rourke was the lone no-vote. O’Rourke based his vote on a previous request of Ferndale Chamber of Commerce President Paul Beatie to extend the length of parking to three hours, rather than the proposed two hours. Councilman Michael Sweeney offered a counter-argument to the chamber president’s request. “

I think what spawned this ordinance was chronic people that park their cars on Main Street for long period of time on a regular basis,” said Sweeney. “They’re taking up parking spaces in front of a business, or along Main Street that a visitor might want to use.”

Fair gets lucky break; state board moves race meet back to August and grants one week of lucrative unoverlapped racing

From the November 2, 2017 print edition

By Dan Ross

Enterprise contributor

After months of talks, rarely constructive but frequently impassioned, between the various competing entities in the Northern California horse racing circuit, California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) commissioners finally signed off on their own calendar of racing dates for the northern half of the state next year, and it’s a significant win for Humboldt County Fair (HCF), which receives two weeks of racing between August 15 and August 28.

Other fairs also got significant boosts in their racing dates with one entity on the losing end — the California State Fair, which lost a week of racing.

Most crucially, Ferndale’s first week runs un-overlapped with Golden Gate Fields — akin to striking the mother lode for the small country track which has struggled financially since new management took over in 2013.

It’s been seven years since the fair was granted a week of unoverlapped racing.

“On behalf of the citizens of Humboldt County, we would like to thank you… for taking the positive leadership to control and correct and stabilize racing in Northern California at the six remaining venues, five of which are fairs,” a relieved Jim Morgan, special counsel to HCF, told the commissioners at their October board meeting at Santa Anita racetrack last week, as the board prepared for a final vote on the proposal.

The big pluses for Ferndale are two-fold.

For one, by moving the two-week race meet from this year’s schedule—August 23 to September 4—back in date to its more usual August slot, Ferndale avoids overlap with the school year. The HCF on its Facebook page stated that the 2018 fair will run from August 15-26. Secondly, the first week of unoverlapped racing will go some way to replenishing the track’s depleted coffers.

While the fair had a historic high reserve in the beginning of 2013 of 35.1 percent, its new general manager Richard Conway quickly spent down the funds with excessive spending and budget overruns. At the end of 2016, its reserve was 11.3 percent. The books have not yet closed on this year’s fair.

In recent years, the fair association also decided to spend money from its general fund in an attempt to keep its finances from this newspaper, despite the lease between the county and the association stating that the fair’s financial records are public documents. The efforts to hide the association’s books failed twice, and the fair board racked up huge attorney bills after its insurance provider said it wouldn’t cover litigation costs. The fair board has also recently had to hire another attorney with the fair association’s own money to answer to a lawsuit filed this past summer by The Enterprise, seeking to have the fair board’s meetings return to being governed by the state’s open meeting law, as was the case for the fair association for dozens of years prior to 2015. A

lso, this year’s race meet wasn’t all that fair management predicted.

Even with one extra day of racing, average daily handle was down almost 17 percent, according to the CHRB’s executive director Rick Baedeker, and fewer horses made it to the starting gate than the previous year.

With this in mind, the first and last time Ferndale ran un-overlapped with Golden Gate Fields was in 2010, when the track generated record profits, and a purse underpayment of nearly $100,000, according to estimates by the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF). Nevertheless, some estimated that in the past the industry as a whole lost some $800,000 in revenue when Humboldt raced un-overlapped. And various parties, spearheaded by the Stronach Group, which owns Golden Gate Fields, have strongly resisted attempts to award Ferndale this concession. In the end, the notably exasperated commissioners last week threw their hands up at the ongoing gridlock among all the tracks, and drafted the final calendar themselves.

“You’re like an unruly family,” commissioner Madeline Auerbach admonished the room. “If everyone’s a little unhappy with what we’ve proposed, then we’ve probably done a good job.”

At the beginning of the race dates committee meeting at Santa Anita the day prior, however, it looked likely that representatives from Ferndale would indeed be heading back up north unhappy with what would transpire. During that two-and-a-half hour meeting, a number of proposals were tabled from various parties that cast serious doubt not only over the near-term future of Ferndale, but the long term future of the fairs as racing venues.

At the start of the session, representatives of Golden Gate Fields threw a Molotov cocktail into the discussions, introducing a set of dates not shared before among the other members, that would have seen racing run continuously between December 26 and the middle of November at the San Francisco track, with a three-week break in September. That proposal was a radical departure from the current state of affairs. What’s more, no provision was given as to how the fairs would have fitted around this calendar, but Stronach Group representative Scott Daruty said that other northern California venues could race on Wednesdays and Thursdays, while Golden Gate would race Fridays and the weekends – the most lucrative days of the week.

To bolster their argument, the Stronach Group shared a table of statistics that painted the economic viability of the fairs, and Ferndale in particular, in a poor light. According to their numbers, while Golden Gate’s average daily handle between October 20, 2016, and September 18, 2017, was over $1.8 million a day, Ferndale’s 2017 average daily handle was a little under $425,000. This would amount to a 325 percent increase in handle if the race dates were switched over to the Bay Area facility.

California Thoroughbred Trainers Association Executive Eirector Alan Balch then threw into the mix the idea that Ferndale receive no race dates whatsoever next year, arguing that any decisions that get made should be designed to ensure the “current and future viability of Golden Gate Fields.” But Ferndale did receive firm backing in a number of other important quarters, not least of all commissioner Auerbach, who responded to the withering attacks on Ferndale by reaffirming that she would “like to see Ferndale continue.”

Morgan made a heart-felt plea for the commissioners and the other vested interests to look beyond the cold hard stats and acknowledge Ferndale’s other attributes, not only its long history as a racetrack, but its function as a hub for the community, both culturally and economically.

“Well let’s just get rid of Humboldt,” Morgan said. “Sure, let’s get rid of Humboldt. Why don’t we cut down the redwoods? Why don’t we develop the beaches? Why don’t we put condos in Yosemite? Let’s just get rid of our heritage. Once you cut down a redwood, it’s not coming back. Once you close a fair … you don’t reopen it.”

“Humboldt deserves to survive,” he added.

One possible spoke in the wheels for all fairs next year is the possibility that Golden Gate closes its doors to stabling during the summer months, as was mooted at the regular CHRB meeting. If that were the case, the fairs would have to shoulder the stabling of horses in Northern California alone.

“I can tell you, there’s nowhere near a deal right now for off-site stabling for the fairs,” said Thoroughbred Owners of California chief executive officer Greg Avioli. And though “there appears to be enough stalls throughout the fair circuit to cover the horses that run,” said Avioli, it could still prove a logistical nightmare.

Still, at least for now at Ferndale, the takeaway from Santa Anita last week is a mainly positive one.

“It’s best case scenario for us,” said Richard Conway, Humboldt County Fair general manager, at the end of the race dates committee meeting on the Wednesday. “One week is huge – it goes a long way for us. Gives us a great opportunity.” It’s “unfortunate” some of the other fairs didn’t receive the dates they wanted, he said. Representatives from Sacramento track Cal Expo were especially upset at the dates approved. “But it certainly helps us,” he added.

Meanwhile, the network of 78 fairs in California, including the HCF, will benefit starting in 2019 from an estimated $8-$12 million dollars in annual funding anticipated to be earmarked from three quarters of one percent of all sales tax generated at fairs. Assembly Bill 1499 was signed by the governor in October. In 2011, the state cut the $30 million allocated annually to fairs. The HCF has received between $30,000 and $40,000 of state money per year recently for its general fund. In addition, it has been allocated more than $500,000 from the state’s general fund for capital improvements.

Disclosure:  The Enterprise editor’s husband was the former GM of the HCF from 1991-2013.

Fair board forced to make meeting minutes public

From the October 12, 2017 print edition

The county of Humboldt has required the Humboldt County fair board to make public minutes from its meetings. The fair board has done so, turning over to this newspaper more than 80 pages of meeting minutes it has kept private since it changed its long-standing status as a public body in February of 2015 to a private non-profit and went behind closed doors to conduct the majority of its business.

The public has been unable in the last few years to view, comment or learn about the decision-making process for business at the fairgrounds, including several controversial bookings — a marijuana festival that ultimately was cancelled by the Ferndale police chief and loud motorized events. Much of the public portion of the fair board’s meetings have lasted only minutes during the last several years, with the board then retreating behind closed doors to discuss a multitude of items including reports from its Livestock, Marketing and Entertainment and special ad hoc committees. The general manager’s report and financial information has also been discussed behind closed doors. Fair board meeting minutes have been approved behind closed doors and access to the minutes has been blocked.

That is until now.

The lease between the county and the Humboldt County Fair Association states that the fair board minutes can be accessed by the county of Humboldt. When The Enterprise requested the minutes from the county, the county initially balked. After this newspaper filed a lawsuit, the county immediately requested the minutes from the fair association and made them public, thereby settling the litigation quickly.

“This is a good result,” said Enterprise legal counsel, Paul Nicholas Boylan. “The public obtains records that provide insight into how and why HCFA makes decisions that affect the community, and the public avoids the enormous costs associated with records access disputes.”

County officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Boylan is no stranger to these kinds of disputes and he knows how much they can cost.

He was recently awarded nearly $90,000 after he won a records access case against the City of Eureka. The fair association and its insurance provider has paid Boylan more than $66,000 to settle two previous lawsuits for withholding fair financial documents from the public.

The fair association’s lease with the county states that all financial documents are public records. In addition, the fair association has paid thousands of dollars to its own attorneys to unsuccessfully fight The Enterprise’s lawsuits. Its liability insurance provider refused to cover the fair board for the last public records suit and the released minutes show that there is no coverage to defend against the latest litigation filed by this newspaper — separate from the minutes lawsuit filed and settled with the county — which contends that the fair association is a de facto local agency and should be subject to the state’s open meeting laws, as it was for decades.

The fairgrounds is public property and receives public monies and the board is one of only two in the state among more than 70 fairs that does the majority of its business in private.

HCFA General Manager Richard Conway did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Meanwhile, the minutes from more than two years’ worth of private meetings show that the fair board may have attempted to change the lease between it and the county regarding public records. At its May 2016 meeting, after The Enterprise’s attorney was awarded $45,000 in its first successful public records suit, minutes state that the fair board or its management planned to speak with its special counsel “concerning writing a letter to the County of Humboldt requesting a change of the lease contract to exclude public records requests.”

Other items discussed behind closed doors included in July of 2015 a discussion on the VIP suite usage and the opening of the board room for directors during the “weigh-in” day prior to the junior exhibitors week. At that meeting, director Al Cooper made a motion that directors should “buy their own drinks” and not receive drink tickets. The motion carried, changing a long tradition of directors drinking alcohol bought with fair funds.

Other items done behind closed doors, according to the minutes, including discussion of state monies allocated to the fair for deferred maintenance, appointment of directors to committees, fair board goals, the fair association’s annual budget and efforts to “protect its reserve,” the city of Ferndale’s Transient Occupancy Tax and whether the fair association should pay the city, storage of the Cape Mendocino Fresnel lens, the annual directors dinner, reports on the racing program and state racing dates issues involving the public California Horse Racing Board, ADA updates required on the fairgrounds (including major projects with a 2019 deadline), rental fee increases and monster track and flat track racing events.

In regard to the last topic, an attorney working for the city of Ferndale said that the county has agreed that the issue of environmental reviews of the use of the fairgrounds grandstands for something other than horse racing may need to be addressed under the California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA.

Attorney James Aste said that after several meetings between county officials and members of city staff over issues related to citizen complaints about the motorized events at the fairgrounds, “the county will have Public Works staff examine CEQA compliance issues prior to entering into a new lease with the fair association.” The lease between the county and the HCFA is up for renewal in 2018. The city has said that it can’t enforce its noise ordinance on the fair association — even though the fairgrounds is within city limits — due to the “rules of preemption,” according to Aste. The Ferndale City Council will receive a report on the issue at its October 18 meeting.

Meanwhile, attorney Boylan praised the county of Humboldt for acting quickly to make the fair board minutes public.

“They acted swiftly and accurately evaluated the merits of the dispute between The Enterprise and their client and their client chose the path of greater transparency instead of engaging in an expensive and divisive legal battle to maintain secrecy of something that should be public information,” said Boylan.

Humboldt County First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, when asked at the October 2 Ferndale Chamber of Commerce meeting whether he thought fair board meetings should be open to the public and subject to the state’s open meeting laws once again, said that he thought the meetings were open to the public.

Three Ferndale residents witness Vegas slaughter

From the October 5, 2017 print edition

A trio of Ferndale residents are back home after a harrowing trip to Las Vegas where they witnessed Sunday’s slaughter of 58 people attending a country music festival.

Dustin Del Biaggio, a Humboldt County Sheriff Deputy; his girlfriend, Ferndale Police Officer Tierra Shumard, as well as Ferndale resident Beth Coppini were all at the concert at Mandalay Bay on Sunday evening. None of the three responded to requests for interviews.

The Humboldt Deputy Sheriff’s Organization issued a press release on Wednesday morning which included Del Biaggo’s thoughts and recollections of the events.

Del Biaggio and his girlfriend, Officer Shumard — who has been a member of the FPD since December — were near the front of the crowd at the mass shooting.

“It was during the last performer of the night. We got to the show early, so we had made our way to the front of the stage,” said Del Biaggio. “At one point, we heard what sounded like firecrackers, that’s what the audience thought it was. Shortly after that, they started again, and we started to see people drop in front of us.

“Time doesn’t really add up, but we dropped to the ground and I covered up Tierra. We waited until the gunfire stopped and started to run towards the back. As we were running, there was another burst of gunfire as we were about halfway to the exit. People were calling to ‘cover up the women,’ and a few people jumped on us to shield us from the gunfire.

“When it stopped again, we made our way to the back of the venue where some people had already pushed out the back wall of a bar.

“Around this time we ran into a LVPD officer who told us, ‘Mandalay Bay, 15th floor.’ “In retrospect, this information [on the presumed location of the shooter] was key in keeping us safe, since we avoided the line of fire from that point on.

“We came out of the building in a strange parking lot full of semi-trucks. This was when I had a chance to pull up a map on my phone of the surrounding area to get my bearings.

“This is when we finally had a chance to call our parents, to let them know we were OK and find out what was happening.

“The community was amazing. Uber and Lyft drivers were just picking people up. We saw a girl in shock whose father had been shot and went with her to the hospital in an Uber that stopped for us. There was no selfishness, everyone was helping.

“I can honestly say that tunnel vision kicked in, the stress response was incredible. I can’t remember the emotion on people’s faces, screams, any of that. I can only remember gunfire, and the silence when it wasn’t there.

“I really think that my Law Enforcement Officer training was instrumental in the whole thing. When it happened, I really felt that the training came back, the feeling of take cover, all the things they teach you made a difference. It was a tough feeling being in the civilian role, not able to help, but looking back our training helped to keep us safe.

“We are doing OK, but I definitely have pangs of shock, disbelief, confusion and especially sadness for the victims, people that can’t come home.” Meanwhile,

Ferndale’s Beth Coppini returned to Ferndale on Monday. Her fiance, local dairyman Tom Ghidinelli said he was supposed to accompany Coppini to the concern but went to a wedding instead.

“She is pretty shook up,” said Ghidinelli, adding that Coppini’s son “got pretty cut up jumping over a fence and hiding in a bunker at the airport. “Pretty traumatic for her. She saw people get shot and go down.” Ghidinelli said that his girlfriend told him that “people really helped out” during the attack and in the aftermath. “It’s going to take awhile to get over it.”

Meanwhile, Ferndale Police Chief Bret Smith said that officer Shumard attended a debriefing on Tuesday regarding the shooting.

Ferndale Rep’s “Little Shop of Horrors” is a must-see musical

From the October 5 print edition

By Emily Silver

Enterprise arts editor

SKID ROW DREAMIN’

Skid. Row. Vagrants hanging out idly among dilapidated empty buildings? Vacant lots? Seedy taverns? The plot and themes of “Little Shop of Horrors,” currently in production at Ferndale Repertory Theatre, depend heavily on the idea of transcending Skid Row. Mushnick’s Flower Shop is peopled by characters such as the disillusioned Mushnick himself (played straightforwardly here by Warren W. Hardison), his rescue-project Seymour, and Audrey the desperate salesgirl. Their only wealth is hope. And, it turns out, a carnivorous plant.

LOOKING BACK

In 1960, Roger Corman had wrapped up shooting for his “Bucket of Blood,” but he still had some time before his sets were dismantled. A quick brainstorm with “Chuck” Griffith and Sally Kellerman yielded a plot to fit the set and “Little Shop of Horrors” was born. Corman employed Jonathan Haze for Seymour and a young Jack Nicholson (back when he had hair) as a pain-loving dental patient. The black and white film was produced in two days and eventually outshone “Bucket of Blood” in popularity. The musical premiered in New York in 1982 with Howard Ashman’s book and lyrics and music by Alan Menken, and the 1986 film featured Steve Martin, Rick Moranis, and Ellen Greene.

ALL SKID ROW’S THE STAGE

The complex set expertly designed by Cecilia Beaton and painted by Raymond Gutierrez emphasizes depth and makes for dynamic staging. Our view is a cross section of the shop from within; the door of the shop opens beneath a bridge. The tall towers of the city are lit by a changing sky at stage right (lighting by Michael Foster). Closer to us downstage boarded-up doorways, stoops, and a fire escapes provide vertical interest.

FEED ME

Who buys flowers on Skid Row? Mushnick’s shop seems destined for failure. But when the product of Seymour’s plant experiments, Audrey II, is displayed in the window, suddenly customers begin to flock in. Success is in the air, but at what price? The plant swells ominously each time she’s fed. A sequence of fleshy puppets, created by Intermission Productions (“You Dream It, We Seam It”), is effectively manipulated by stage combat expert Jeff Cooper. And yes, the plant speaks and sings the blues in a rockin’ bass voiced by Craig Woods.

FEARLESS

This is Alexandra Blouin’s debut as a director. Her multi-faceted talents were evident in “Boeing! Boeing,” “Bat Boy,”  and “Beauty and the Beast” among others and she brings them together successfully here. Blouin’s dedicated discipline is evident in her ability to handle the layered concerns of this musical: a complicated set, constantly changing lighting, choreography, music, and puppets. Not to mention inspiring the actors. And deciding how to deal with graphic violence. Nothing to worry about. Skillfully, Blouin has refrained from overrunning the production with violence. While the maleficent plant enlists Seymour to hack folks up so she can “grow,” we’re spared the view of the hacking. Only a few fake bloody body parts show up onstage. Considering whose they’re meant to be, we’re glad to see it.

DOES IT HURT?

Lucius Robinson is a quintessential bad guy. While Steve Martin tackled the role of Orin Scrivello, D.D.S. in the 1986 film version, I honestly can’t imagine a more quintessentially evil “Doctor” than Robinson’s. Raising frowning eyebrows, pulling up to a grotesque grin, cutting loose with that sinister laugh, and gesturing with the dental drill all help the audience anticipate his demise. Later, Robinson morphs comfortably into brief “other roles,” demonstrating tremendous versatility and costume-change agility, most memorably when he appears in drag as a Life magazine rep.

“LITTLE SHOPPA HORRAS / BOP-SH’BOP”

Audrey II starts getting lively with blood from a mere finger-prick, but her increasing appetite augurs poorly for all the characters– except, thankfully, the three sirens Ronette (Emma Johnstone), Chiffon (Jessie Rawson), and Crystal (Stevie-Alexis Maquez). From the very first moment, this Greek-style chorus enlivens every scene with their bright costumes (way too fashionable for Skid Row, really) and ironic commentaries. Introducing themselves as fifth-grade dropouts, wielding cigarettes and Brooklyn accents, Johnstone, Rawson, and Maquez convey wonderful style and unity, in part thanks to their flashy costumes designed by costume mistress Cindy Shepard. Their lusty voices synchronize perfectly with the accompanying piano licks by Laura Welch. Individual “head things” and Elvis sneers spark their performances in a campy way.

AUDREY ONE

Jessica Kaufman as Audrey personifies longing and a vision for a better life. She dresses impeccably and dates a dentist who beats her up. She also helps locate the play in the 1960s, idealizing Levittown, Lucy, Donna Reed, Howdy Doody, and living in a tract home in the ironic ballad “Somewhere That’s Green.”

SUDDENLY SEYMOUR

Poor little Seymour is dwarfed by Audrey. As played by Morgan Cox, he’s content to be pathetic: “I started life as an orphan, a child of the street here on skid row,” he sings. Mushnick “took me in, gave me shelter, a bed, . . . and a job. Treats me like dirt, calls me a slob. . .which I am.” With his almost liquid facial muscles, receding chin, timid stature, and light tenor voice I can’t imagine anyone nailing Seymour better than Cox–not surprising since Cox has aimed for this role ever since he was nine. It’s uncanny what a great fit it is.

THE UNSEEN

It’s a challenge to synchronize and tune up even a house orchestra with what’s going on onstage. And never mind that the voice and movements of one of the characters are covered by separate actors. Music and Vocal Directors David Powell and Laura Welch are nowhere to be seen, but they create a powerful presence. Welch’s invisible piano is audible in a big way without dominating, and the actors’ voices are aligned with it seemingly miraculously.

OH MY THE REMODEL

Regular visitors to Ferndale Repertory Theatre will note this summer’s remodel has transformed and modernized the interior. Improvements include a roomy new concession area, video screens identifying the players in the lobby, and new seating with clear sightlines and, best of all . . . cup holders! The new sound system enables actors to wear almost-invisible mics. Many thanks to The Kurt Feuerman Foundation, Ferndale Rotary Club, the McLean Foundation, and many private donors for funding this upgrade.

“THE WAY THE WORLD IS. . .”

“Little Shop of Horrors” is another in a sequence of productions that showcases Ferndale Repertory Theatre as a go-to source for satisfying musical theatre. We’re so lucky to have them on the North Coast. As Tim Curry said, “The way the world is, I think a silly evening in the theatre is a good thing, to take our minds off terror.” “Little Shop of Horrors,” plays now through October 29 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 447 Main in Ferndale. Check out their website at www.ferndalerep.org or call them at 707-786-5483.

Council fast tracks marijuana ordinance

First reading planned for October 18; little public input at workshop

From the October 5, 2017 print edition

The Ferndale City Council at its special meeting at Town Hall on Tuesday decided to accelerate the process of approving an ordinance regulating recreational marijuana activities in the city.

With stepped-up efforts to approve the new ordinance as soon as possible, the council hopes to position the city so that its ordinance is in effect should the State of California begin issuing licenses prior to January 1, 2018.

Proposition 64, referred to as The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), was approved by California voters in November 2016, legalizing use of recreational marijuana and created a state regulated licensing system for cultivation, testing, manufacturing and distribution of non-medical marijuana. According to the voter-approved legislation, January 1, 2018 was set as the date when the state would start issuing licenses. In order to regulate the new law, local jurisdictions like Ferndale would be required to have an ordinance in place by that time. Local officials, however, want to move as quickly as possible in case the state starts issuing licenses prior to the January 1 start date.

“Technically, they have the ability to issue licenses now, but they’re not completely set up,” said Ferndale Mayor Don Hindley. “And, there’s been some talk about possibly, in late 2017, start issuing licenses. If we don’t have our ordinance done and in place for 30 days, we may lose our ability to get the ordinance in.”

City Manager Jay Parrish also recommended that the council move as fast as possible to get the ordinance through the required two readings, plus the required 30-day waiting period.

“That’s why we think we need to get this done as soon as possible,” said Parrish. “Kris (City Clerk Kristene Hall) and I would recommend we have the first reading (at the October 18 council meeting), and then, as quickly as possible—which I think is two weeks— we could have a second reading.”

The council also discussed how the new recreational marijuana ordinance would replace a previous ordinance that dealt only with medical marijuana use in the city. With the new ordinance, anyone growing marijuana for medical purposes would fall under the same regulations as recreational grows, according to the draft ordinance.

“My understanding is that people that might be currently growing medical marijuana with a 215 card would be subject to these same provisions, in terms of getting a permit,” said Councilman Michael Sweeney. “But, how would the ordinance apply with anyone (already) growing with a 215?”

Mayor Hindley provided an explanation.

“ They basically would have to tell us they’re growing,” said Hindley. “Before, when they got the 215 card, all they had to do was go to any doctor in Arcata and once they had a 215 card they didn’t have to come to the city.”

The parts of the proposed ordinance relating to transporting marijuana was also discussed by the council, with Councilman Doug Brower offering his concerns.

“One of the things the ordinance doesn’t address is transportation,” said Brower.

Mayor Hindley once again provided clarification. “It addresses it in the fact that it can’t originate here,” said Hindley. “You can’t transport it from outside the city of Ferndale and have it end up in the city of Ferndale.”

Brower stated that his concerns related to a commercial marijuana grow application (see last week’s Enterprise) that had been submitted to the County of Humboldt for parcels of land east of Brower’s home.

“My example being at the end of Eugene (Street),” said Brower. “That’s county— can they come through with a U-Haul truck? What’s our enforcement?”

Brower was reminded that the ordinance could not restrict the use of public roads for transporting marijuana, but could restrict its final destination from landing in Ferndale.

Other than a representative from The Enterprise, only two members of the public attended the special meeting. The meeting was the second consecutive council meeting attended by Ferndale residents Tim and Margaret Griggs, who arrived just minutes before the meeting concluded. At the September 20 city council meeting, the Griggses spoke in opposition to an ordinance, approved on a 3-2 vote that night, regulating vacation rentals in Ferndale. The September meeting was the only time the Griggses participated in discussions of the vacation rental ordinance, a process that involved multiple meetings over a nine-month process.

Mrs. Griggs asked at Tuesday’s meeting about the proposed ordinance limiting the number of plants (six) that a person with a license and permit could grow in Ferndale.

“I was looking through it and I feel pretty good about a lot of it,” said Griggs. “The six plant rule— is there a reason we have to go with that? Can’t ask for zero?”

Mayor Hindley said that the ordinance would very likely be ruled null and void if the number was anything less than six.

“OK,” said Griggs. “Bummer.”

After reviewing the proposed ordinance the council approved by consensus to move forward with its first reading at the October 18 Town Hall meeting.

Initial fair revenues drop below budgeted numbers

Expenses still being tallied; board meets Monday

From the September 21, 2017 print edition

Initial revenue numbers for the 2017 Humboldt County Fair are down from what fair association directors had hoped to earn this year.

With the fair running this year from August 23-September 4 — while most county students had returned to the classroom — draft revenue numbers in certain key areas are off double digit percentages from what was budgeted by the fair association earlier this year.

Commissions earned by the fair from concession revenue, according to draft figures provided by the fair association, show a 35 percent drop from what the fair board budgeted.  Commissions from food and non-food concessionaires totaled $110,790. The fair board had hoped to earn $170,000 — about $9,000 less than what it earned last year with one less day of fair. Entry fees from the fair’s exhibit program came in at $11,005 compared to the $20,000 the fair board had hoped to earn, as it did the prior year.

Unaudited admission revenue, as reported in last week’s edition, totaled $255,473. The fair board budgeted to earn $272,000 in ticket sales. Pre-sale admissions totaled $39,300 — a 36 percent drop from the $61,000 budgeted. Carnival revenue totaled $137,003 — just slightly below the $145,000 budgeted. Parking revenue showed a 10.54 percent drop, earning the fair association $58,037 compared to the $69,000 budgeted. Sponsorship revenue — according to draft figures — show the fair association receiving $190,000 in cash donations, compared to the $200,000 budgeted.

The fair’s Lisa Hindley said in an email that figures for money earned from racing concessions are not complete, but should be in by the end of the month. The fair board budgeted $139,000 for the concession commissions — just $700 less that what was earned in 2016. The fair association board of directors will now wait for expenses from the annual event to be tallied.

According to the association’s 2017 budget, fair management has planned on cutting expenses over $100,000 after going over budget by about the same amount last year. The budget calls for increasing revenues for the year by $25,000. However, the total in anticipated revenues released in draft numbers by the association show a drop so far of $135,528. Not reportable as of yet are the commissions earned from the fair’s horse racing program. This year’s seven-day meet saw the same number of races as last year’s six-day meet. Eighty-five percent of the fair association’s revenue is earned during the annual fair. The other 15 percent is earned from interim rentals of the fairgrounds buildings and camping fees. The fair association also receives state general fund money each year.

This year, the fair association will also receive $30,000 from the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF) — a public joint powers authority of which the association belongs to. CARF also paid $33,000 this year for a new inner track rail for the fair. Earlier this year, CARF’s interim Executive Director Larry Swartzlander reported that the Humboldt County Fair is in “financial duress.”  CARF’s Live Racing Committee Chairman John Alkire stressed to local fair representatives that the fair “should be working hard to maximize community fundraising events,” as well as look at raising the sales tax to support the fair. The fair association board agendas have not included any items relating to a possible sales tax measure.

The fair board meets Monday night, beginning at 7 pm at the fair’s board room on Fifth Street.

Newspaper files legal action seeking public records and open meetings

Wants fair board meetings back under public meeting law and minutes from fair board meetings

From the September 14, 2017 print edition

This newspaper filed two lawsuits in Humboldt County Superior Court on Monday seeking the Humboldt County Fair Association (HCFA) board of directors to open its meetings to the public and for the County of Humboldt to make public the minutes of the fair board’s meetings.

HCFA’s General Manager Richard Conway and the county’s legal counsel did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Historically, the fair board has followed the Ralph M. Brown Act — the state law governing public meetings. In 2015, when the fair changed its tax classification from an affiliate of a local agency to a private non-profit, the board began doing most of its business behind closed doors. The Enterprise’s lawyer asked the fair board to voluntarily follow the public meeting law in an effort to avoid another round of litigation. The board refused, forcing the newspaper to file suit.

“As far as I know, HCFA is the only county fair board that doesn’t follow the Brown Act, doesn’t notify the public of actions HCFA intends on taking and doesn’t allow the public to participate in those decisions so that bad decisions that negatively impact the public can be prevented,” said The Enterprise’s attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, an attorney who specializes in government transparency litigation. “The Enterprise is seeking a court order requiring HCFA to follow the Brown Act so that the community can take part in fair board decisions with the same rights as other California citizens throughout the state.”

Meanwhile, the lease between the county and the HCFA (Lease Agreement) states that the county can request fair board minutes from its meetings.  The Enterprise filed a California Public Records Act request with the county, seeking those minutes. The county refused to provide them.

“The county controls access to the records The Enterprise wants to examine but refuses to instruct the county fair board to provide The Enterprise with these records. The Enterprise is asking the court for an order requiring the county to satisfy its duty to the public and instruct HCFA to provide The Enterprise with copies of records the public wants to examine,” said Boylan.

The Enterprise twice has succeeded through litigation to make the HCFA provide financial documents to the public, per its agreement with the county. The HCFA’s insurance provider paid the legal bills to defend it during the first lawsuit. The second time around, the provider declined to pay the HCFA’s attorney bills.

Editorial: Hidden agendas

From the September 14, 2017 print edition

Once again, we’re scratching our heads when it comes to the Humboldt County Fair board. Why would the 18 members decide to hunker down and not operate under the state’s public meeting law — like the board did for decades — and instead choose to spend precious resources on attorney fees to keep the public from being informed and part of the decision-making process when it comes to the future of our beloved public fairgrounds and fair?

Out of the dozens of county and state fairs in California, 99 percent follow the state’s public meeting laws to make sure the public is informed and has an opportunity to comment on important decisions made on the public’s behalf.

Take for instance recent controversial events held or nearly held at the fairgrounds. The public did not get to listen or contribute to the decision-making process regarding the proposed pot festival, which the Ferndale police chief eventually snuffed out. The public was not part of the decision-making process regarding two loud motorized sporting events that impacted the town both positively and negatively. We don’t know about you, but we’re not willing to put our blind faith in the 18 members on that board or the general manager . . . especially considering our front page story this week where we point out another case of disingenuous behavior coming from the fair’s front office. The list is long.

Fair directors will likely tell you that fair board meetings are open. Again, disingenuous.

As soon as this newspaper’s attorney requested that the fair association go back under the Ralph M. Brown Act, the fair board opened up a portion of its meetings where the public could sit it. The majority of its business, however, is still done behind closed doors.

The Brown Act requires local entities to post their board meeting agendas, list all their business items to be discussed, allow for public comment on each item and inspect the writings of the public entity. Of course, there are times when a board needs to retreat behind closed doors and the Brown Act allows for that. Personnel items, litigation and property negotiations are all examples of issues that can be discussed in private.

Meanwhile, if you want to read the association’s minutes from the past two-and-a-half years, good luck. Despite the lease between the county and the fair association stating that the county can request the minutes at anytime, the county won’t do so. We know. We tried. We asked the county to obtain the minutes from the fair board and they would not. Hence, our legal action this week against the County of Humboldt in an attempt to get the county to do the right thing by shedding light on the fair board’s activities regarding running and maintaining a 65-acre publicly-owned property within the city limits of Ferndale.

The fair board operates a public facility, receives and spends public funds, is insured by a public agency, its budget is approved by the county, its funds are held in the county coffers, it is regulated by the state of California — including all horse-racing activity — and its year-end financials are approved by the state, including details of how many fair tickets are given away each year due to a state law that puts a limit on how many complimentary tickets can be handed out. Simply put, we believe legally it is a defacto local agency that belongs under public meeting laws. We end this editorial with one simple question. What is the fair board hiding?