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Trustee ignoring public document requests costs school district $10,385

Former school board president Cory Nunes was asked twice for public documents; ignored warning from newspaper about costly litigation

From the January 18th print edition

Ferndale Unified School District (FUSD) trustees agreed last week to pay this newspaper’s attorney fees and court costs of $10,385. The amount is part of a settlement agreement reached after trustee Cory Nunes in March of 2017 twice ignored public record requests from The Enterprise. The second request warned Nunes, then board president, that if he or anyone else from the district didn’t respond to the newspaper’s request, a “judicial remedy” would be sought.

The monies will come from the district’s general fund, said district superintendent Beth Anderson.

In January of 2016, the district paid $5,500 to cover this newspaper’s attorney fees and court costs in a similar public records lawsuit when now retired superintendent Jack Lakin ignored a public record request from The Enterprise. Nunes did not respond to a request for comment.

“Although we budget for legal expenses, it is unfortunate to lose general funds that could be used in ways to directly support our students,” said Anderson this week. “I will be very diligent as the leader of the district to ensure that public records requests are responded to in the required time frame and with the requested documents.”

Lakin made a similar statement after he failed to respond to a public records request.

“Agreeing to pay The Enterprise’s attorney’s fees and court costs demonstrates a good understanding of the duties the California Public Records Act imposes on public agencies — including school districts,” said Paul Nicholas Boylan, the trial attorney who represented The Enterprise in the records access dispute. “I am hopeful that this kind of dispute between The Enterprise and the district are a thing of the past.”

In similar settlements, the Humboldt County Fair Association has paid Enterprise attorney fees and court costs of $67,000 for ignoring public records requests. While the fair association’s general liability insurance provider paid the first tab of $46,000, it did not pay for a second settlement of $21,000. In addition, the insurance provider refused to pay for the fair association’s own attorney fees in the second public records action, costing the fair association almost $50,000 from its own coffers.

The fair association currently is again using fair funds to pay an attorney to fight against increased transparency. The Enterprise filed litigation last year against the association, contending that the association is a local agency and should conduct its meetings under the California open meeting law otherwise known as the Brown Act. The fair association had operated under the Brown Act — as 99 percent of California’s more than 75 fairs and expositions currently do — for most of its existence. That all changed in February of 2015 when the fair directors changed the associations long-time tax classification as an affiliate of a government entity to a non-profit. As of November 30, 2017, the association had paid $3,355 to Eureka attorney Paul Brisso to defend against the newspaper’s action. Brisso is a new hire by the fair board. Previously, the fair association paid Oakland-based attorney Randy Andrada to defend them.

Small school funding may be restored for Ferndale Unified School District

Ferndale Unified School District can breathe a huge sigh of relief today.

An estimated $400,000 to $500,000 annually in Necessary Small School Funding has been secured for the future in what could be a permanent fix.

Senator Mike McGuire announced this afternoon that Governor Brown included $2.3 million, “permanently,” in funding for six rural small school districts across the state, including Ferndale Unified School District.  The governor’s budget proposal has to be approved by the state legislature.

Here’s our story from the December 14 edition on the issue:  

Here’s a press release from Senator McGuire’s office:

Sacramento, CA – Senator McGuire has been a fierce advocate to strengthen our state’s public schools.

Earlier this year, Senator McGuire brought leaders from Ferndale Schools and five other small districts to the Capitol to permanently secure over $2 million for unique, small school districts across California. McGuire is pleased to announce that those in-depth talks were successful: Governor Brown included $2.3 million, permanently, in funding for six rural small school districts across the state, including Ferndale Unified in Humboldt County. If these funds weren’t included in today’s budget proposal, these districts would have otherwise stopped  receiving “Necessary Small School Funding” – a dedicated funding source for unique small districts.

Necessary Small Schools Funding provides support for districts that operate very small schools, particularly those that are located in rural areas of the state and where students would otherwise have to spend an excessive amount of time travelling to and from school. The program subsidizes the high operating costs of small schools in districts that lack the size to absorb those costs. State law restricts this funding to very small districts.

“This is an equity issue. All students – from the rural corners of the North Coast to the urban neighborhoods of Los Angeles – deserve results driven schools in their community. Ferndale Schools are some of the best in Northern California and we are so grateful that the Governor agreed to re-instate this important funding back into the budget. This was truly a team effort with the community of Ferndale and today’s action will benefit generations of Humboldt County kids,” Senator McGuire said.

 

Ferndale school officials looking to January with optimism small school funding will be restored

School superintendent reports on “advocacy day” at state capital

From the December 14, 2017 print edition

After an October meeting with officials from the California Department of Finance, Ferndale school district officials are expressing renewed optimism that critical small school funding will be secured at the end of the current school year in June.

Time is running short to nail down an estimated $400,000 – $500,000 — or perhaps up to almost 10 percent of the monies the district receives from the state — that is sent to the Ferndale district in the form of Necessary Small School Funding for Ferndale High School.

For years the school has received the money but a change in the wording of the funding’s law in 2013 put Ferndale’s funding on the line, along with five other school districts.

An “issue” paper on the funding, written by the Coalition of Necessary Small School Districts” in July, states that the change in the language eliminated funding for schools if they were “the only high school maintained by a unified school district” and had an enrollment less than 287 students. Basically, the state has noted, that schools such as Ferndale High are close enough in proximity to other high schools, such as Fortuna, for students to attend. In 2014 a reprieve was granted to Ferndale High and half-a-dozen other unified school districts in the state that were affected the change in the language of the law.

District officials, with the help of area lawmakers, managed to keep the funding going but with a sunset clause that ends the funding at the end of the current school year in June of 2018.

Now, down to the wire, the affected school districts are hoping to make the temporary funding language permanent either through legislation or the state budget. January offers the first opportunity to introduce a “Necessary Small High School” bill and/or the first chance to insert language into the governor’s budget proposal.

“I came away feeling better than I had been,” Ferndale Unified School District Superintendent Beth Anderson said of her late October “advocacy day” in Sacramento in late October. Speaking at the district’s board of trustees meeting on November 8 at Ferndale High School, Anderson said her Sacramento trip included a phone meeting between Senator Mike McGuire and a representative from the state’s Department of Finance, Thomas Todd. (McGuire was unable to make it to Sacramento because of the Sonoma County fires.) Anderson said each of the six school districts affected shared stories of what the impacts on their schools would be if the funding is permanently eliminated.

“I feel like he was receptive,” said Anderson of the Department of Finance representative. “‘These stories prove you are unique’, he said. The only bad news is that we are still in the waiting game,” said Anderson.

“We want the funding to be reinstated in perpetuity so we don’t have to do this again in three or four years,” added the district’s business manager, Denise Grinsell, who also attended the Sacramento event. “We’re not asking for more money, just to keep receiving what we’ve been getting all along. It seemed like that was in our favor.”

“Now we just wait and see,” said Anderson. “If it gets into the budget . . . we will know at the end of January. If not, we do legislation.”

The district is being aided by a Sacramento lobbying firm, to which it has paid $1,000 a month for several years. I

n a letter to Senator McGuire in August, Anderson said that if the funding is not restored, the Ferndale school district would fall into an unsustainable pattern of deficit spending.

“If a solution is not found, teaching positions would have to be reduced to a point where the high school would no longer be educationally viable and the school would potentially have to close,” she said.

Meanwhile, because of the potential loss of the Necessary Small School Funding, the district has had to provide “placeholders” for cuts in its budget multi-year projections should the funding not be reinstated in order to show it can meet fiscal solvency. Total revenues received by the district for the current fiscal year are estimated at $6.75 million. Multi-year projections show expected revenues to total $6.16 million in 2018-19. The district’s reserve is projected to be 20.41 percent in 2018-19. In 2019-20, the district projects that the reserve level would fall to 17.14 percent. In addition, if the Necessary Small School Funding is not secured, an agreement with the district’s 30-plus teachers stipulates that salaries will revert back to the 2015/16 salary schedule with a decrease of 2.5 percent

Humboldt County Fair Association wants county to hide fair’s financials from public

With lease coming up for renewal between county and fair board, appeal made to remove “public records” clause

From the December 14 print edition

With the Humboldt County Fair Association’s (HCFA) lease with the county of Humboldt over the publicly-owned 65 acres of fairgrounds up for renewal in 2018, the fair board is asking the county to hide the association’s books from the public.

This, in light of the fair association paying more than $75,000 in attorney fees from its own budget and the association’s liability insurance provider paying another $46,000 in attorney fees in two recent losing battles with this newspaper to keep its finances private.

In a letter dated March 28, 2016, recently obtained from the county through a California Public Records Act request, the fair board’s pro bono attorney has asked the county to rewrite the historic lease of the public property. The lease currently states that all “books, records and documents” pertaining to the management and control of the fairgrounds” are public records.

Attorney Jim Morgan, in his letter to the county’s Senior Real Property Agent, Ronda Kime, states that because the fair association changed its historical status in 2015 from an affiliate of a government entity to a non-profit corporation, “it is not necessary for such documents to become part of the public record.”

The fair association receives state General Fund monies for its operations and capital improvements on the fairgrounds. The association also belongs to three public joint powers authorities and — until recently — held its reserve fund and monies delivered to it from state allocations in the county’s coffers. (The reserve fund of approximately $113,000 in March of 2017 was moved to the association’s operational fund in order to have enough money to pay bills. The fair’s cash on hand at the time was down to $11,375 compared to $64,000 in March of 2016. In January of 2013, the fair had a record high cash and reserve balance of approximately $500,000. Fairs of similar size to the Humboldt County Fair (HCF), according to a recently released report from the California Division of Fairs & Expositions, at the end of 2016 had an average reserve of 49.3 percent. The HCF had a reserve of 11.3 percent with its operating cash down to $209,343 at the end of 2016.)

“It is sufficient that the county may request, in writing, such books, records and documents at any time for county purposes,” stated Morgan in his letter, appealing to remove the requirement that the public can request the fair’s writings, including financial records.

It’s unclear what Morgan meant by “county purposes,” since the county is subject to the state’s public records law and, presumably any documents the county can request are public records.

Morgan did not respond to a request for comment by this issue’s deadline.

Morgan states in his letter that the fair association is aware that it is “obligated” to make all books, records and documents “subject to examination” by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and/or the State Department of Finance, but that it “is appropriate to now redact the requirement that such books, records and documents ‘be and remain public records’.”

County spokesperson Sean Quincey did not respond to a request for comment.

The letter from the fair board’s lawyer to the county was discovered after the county provided minutes from the past several years of fair board meetings to this newspaper. The lease between the county and the fair association states that the county can request fair board minutes — similar phrasing to what Morgan has requested an updated lease to state. When this newspaper asked the county to request the fair board minutes from the fair association, the county balked at first. After this newspaper filed suit against the county, county officials quickly provided the minutes to this newspaper as public documents — per the language of the lease.

While the fair board’s meetings and minutes were always open and available to the public, in 2015 — when the fair board changed its historic tax status — it stopped doing its business in public meetings governed by the state’s public meeting laws. Initially, the meetings were completely closed — apart from a short “community comment” period at the beginning of the meetings. Now, the fair board opens a portion of its meetings to the public but does not have an agendized public comment portion and still retreats behind closed doors to discuss items it doesn’t want the public to hear. It also doesn’t place on the agenda specifics about possible action it plans on taking — such as approving controversial non-fair events that impact the community — or most recently, deciding to move the annual fair’s junior exhibitor week to the last week of the 2018 fair when many area students will be back in school.

(Disclosure:  The Enterprise editor is married to a former general manager of the HCFA.)

 

Document dump shows former schools chief sat on public records; emails show majority of trustees in on secret bond campaign

School board president twice ignored request for public records; after lawsuit, Cory Nunes forced to turn over more than 100 pages of emails, detailing 2016 bond strategy

From the December 7, 2017 print edition

After current Ferndale Unified School District Board President Cory Nunes twice in March ignored a request from this newspaper for his emails regarding school district business, forcing The Enterprise to sue the district to gain access to the public records, Nunes — as the result of a settlement agreement — has turned over to this newspaper more than 100 pages of emails concerning the public’s business.

Many of the emails detail months of secret strategizing last year between a majority of school board trustees and the district’s superintendent — Jack Lakin, now retired from the district but still serving as the Humboldt Del Norte League Commissioner — over how to pass a $4.8 million school repair and modernization bond.

The bond in November of 2016 was the only school bond measure out of six in the county that failed.

When this newspaper last year requested any writings from Lakin regarding the bond, Lakin said he had no emails on his Gmail account for “the purpose of communicating the business of Ferndale USD.” Lakin — contrary to the committee in the late 1990s that passed the last school bond — refused to make public those on the Measure L committee.

The email dump from Nunes contradicts Lakin’s statement and show that he was communicating the public’s business to a majority of trustees. Lakin said on Tuesday, however, all his communications were done as a private citizen to trustees acting also as private citizens and “were not sent as part of conducting district business.”

Trustees for years have discussed a school bond in public meetings and ultimately voted in public to place the bond on the ballot and voted in public on the amount of the bond. Nunes’ public emails from Lakin to four out of five trustees and the secret bond committee discussed who in the community to contact to get public support for the bond and other campaign strategies leading up to election day.

The Enterprise’s litigation counsel, Paul Nicholas Boylan, said that, although he is happy with the district’s improving transparency, the emails the district produced indicate some troubling possibilities.

“The district is regulated by the Brown Act, and the Brown Act requires local agencies to conduct the public’s business in front of the public, and not in secret away from public observation and participation,” Boylan said. “The bond measure is the public’s business, that I am informed the district superintendent claimed the district was not involved in supporting. The emails recently produced shows otherwise. Based on what I’ve seen, it seems that, not only was the district actively supporting the bond, this activity was being performed in secret using private, non-governmental email addresses – and that is the sort of secret government activity the Brown Act is designed to prevent. Maybe this isn’t true, but the only way to find out is with complete transparency that allows the public to freely access records showing district involvement to influence the bond vote,” Boylan concluded. (

Lakin in 2015 also ignored a request for public documents from this newspaper, forcing litigation. The district ended up providing the documents and paying The Enterprise’s attorney fees of $5,500.)

State law does not allow public resources to be used for campaign activity for a bond measure — hence Lakin (most of the time) used a non-district email address to correspond with trustees — the majority of which do not list a district-based email address on the district’s webpage and instead use private email addresses in their official capacity as elected officials. The vast majority of emails sent by Lakin were sent on weekdays during school hours.

A California Supreme Court decision in March ruled that all public officials’ emails — regardless of whether they are public or private email addresses — are public records if they are discussing the public’s business — hence Nunes, because of litigation, turning over the 100-plus pages of emails concerning the public’s business.

Meanwhile, trustee Jerry Hansen, an outspoken opponent of the bond, was not included in the correspondence via email and was not included in dozens of other emails, released by Nunes, from Lakin to the school board regarding other district business unrelated to the bond. Hansen is in the minority opinion most of the time on the school board with trustees JoLynn Jorgensen, Stephanie Koch, Kenny Richardson and Nunes voting as a block. Lakin replied to another public records request from this newspaper made in September of 2016 seeking any correspondence from the district regarding endorsement of the school bond. Again, Lakin stated there were none.

Nunes’ released emails, however, show that Lakin — from his school district’s official email account — wrote four out of five trustees on July 22, 2016, seeking “five leaders” from the community to sign the bond measure for the ballot, calling them “potential key supporters.” He then informed them, again from his school district email account, on August 18 that five “leaders” had signed the ballot measure:  Luke McCanless, Alan Jorgensen, Carolyn Luster, Meghan Langer and Ferndale Police Chief Bret Smith. Lakin said in an email this week that he “apparently errored” by using the district’s email.

When long-time trustee Hansen was asked this week by The Enterprise if he had been included by some other means in the dozens of correspondences turned over by Nunes from Lakin to four out of five trustees, on district business other than the bond, he said he wasn’t. Hansen said he stopped using his email address for school district business after the debacle in 2009 involving trustees’ emails and the firing of former superintendent Sam Garamendi, which eventually resulted in the school district paying Garamendi more than $140,000 in a settlement out of its general fund. Hansen, a top vote getter in school board elections, switched to using his fax machine or snail mail to get correspondence from the district. However, he said since 2010, he has received very little communication from the administration.

Lakin, when asked Wednesday by The Enterprise how he shared information with Hansen that he shared with other trustees, did not answer. “I’ve been left plumb in the dark,” said Hansen this week, adding that while he was “vocal” about his opposition to the $4.8 million bond measure, he told trustees that he wouldn’t campaign against it.

As to who was on the bond measure committee, the school district when asked by The Enterprise last year refused to answer. According to Nunes’ email dump, Lakin asked committee members — which included the four out of five trustees as well as various school district employees and community members — if they were willing to give their names to the newspaper. Ferndale Elementary School Principal Renee Henderson, a committee member, told The Enterprise in an email on September 26, 2016 that, “I cannot because the committee is not a function of the district. I am so sorry.”

Meanwhile, the state’s public meeting law — the Brown Act — does not allow for a majority of an elected board to discuss the public’s business via email and out of the public’s view — such as the emails sent by Lakin from his district account, when he asked trustees to submit names of those that would sign the bond document for the ballot. The emails also show Lakin dismissing his presentation of the proposed bond measure to the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce in October of 2016, where he walked out of the meeting after refusing to answer questions about the bond.

“While there were naysayers at the chamber meeting, those who attended and remained quiet during the meeting have made it a point to apologize for the behavior of others, stated their appreciation for the presentation and indicated a positive position towards Measure L,” he wrote to trustees and others.

Lakin was also asked by one community member via email to hold an open house at the district’s two schools to show the public the needed improvements. Lakin said he was “reluctant” to have an open house.

“While it may be beneficial to some it would create an opportunity for others to hijack the meeting and dominate it with negativity,” he said.

Since the bond defeat, more than a year ago, very little discussion has been had by trustees over potential next steps toward fixing major maintenance and modernization issues in the district. Trustees have also not discussed the possibility of floating a smaller bond before district voters.

 

Ferndale Tractor Parade grand marshal selected

Dairyman Dennis Leonardi will head up 25th annual Tractor Parade

From the December 7 print edition

By Susan Combes

Enterprise contributor

Celebrating its silver anniversary, Ferndale’s Christmas Lighted Tractor Parade rolls down Main Street Sunday, December 17, at 6 pm sharp (or whenever we get done milkin’).

Twenty five years ago Ferndale’s Julie Petersen was just a teenager when she got an idea that Ferndale should host a lighted tractor parade. Her folks, Main Street residents Arne and Paulina Petersen, agreed and their business, Eel Valley Construction, backed her by sponsoring the parade for the first couple of years. Almost immediately, Arne Petersen remembers, Joe Renner and Jeff Liu jumped on board. As the parade’s popularity grew, the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce helped with the details and the insurance before calling on Carol Larsen to do the organizing. Joined quickly by Rick Phillis and other committee members who’ve changed over time, Larsen has been at the helm ever since, finding sponsors, making sure posters get out, cajoling dairymen to take time out of their busy schedules to decorate floats and string Christmas lights over their newest — or oldest — tractors and parade down Main Street, frequently in freezing cold or driving rain. But, hey, Larsen figures, the cows gotta be milked regardless of the weather so the hardy folks who dairy in the Eel River Valley can parade rain or shine.

Ferndale dairyman Dennis Leonardi is this year’s Ferndale Lighted Tractor Parade grand marshal. (Enterprise staff photo.)

Silver Anniversary Grand Marshal Dennis Leonardi has a pretty good idea of why entrants are willing to spend the time, hard work and money necessary to create their imaginative floats year after year, and never mind the weather.

“Everybody is there for the right reasons. It’s not about making money or winning a trophy,” he says. “It’s for the fun. For the families, the workers, for the entertainment.” Leonardi Dairy has had a float in the parade probably 21 times, Leonardi says. “It’s fun and it’s personal when you go down the street and you see all the locals and the out-of-towners all smiling,” he said. “Across the country we need more of this, all the smiles. At that time the world is a better place.”

Leonardi is still considering what to do with his float this year. He’s been proud over the years of using materials on hand and recycling and re-purposing just about anything lying around loose on the dairy, though he does buy a considerable number of lights each year. This year he’s thinking of including some of his favorite creations from former floats.

He remembers the surfing Santa, the replica of the Matterhorn with the skating rink when the kids were little, the giant German candles twirling the overhead fan, the little train that circled the bed of the wagon and those huge nutcrackers. Of course the entry will include his signature reindeer, prancing high on the tractor’s raised bucket. Which brings him, kicking back in his chair, eyes sparkling and laughter in his voice, to the story of the time Rudolph, flying high — maybe a little too high — at the head of the reindeer team, got hung up on the phone lines crossing a Ferndale back street. To avoid disaster, Leonardi, all dressed up as Santa, had to climb up on a house, two by four in hand, to lift the sagging phone lines.

“Those lines hang pretty low,” he said.

And then the float took off down the street, leaving Santa on the roof. Whereas nobody offered him any milk and cookies, “we didn’t interrupt any service,” he laughs. No, he won’t be driving the tractor. He leaves that task to one of his helpers.

“I’m always the Santa Claus,” he says, grinning.

For a change this year most likely he will be joined by wife Kathleen, who usually wants to watch the parade from the sidewalk. Also on the family float will be daughter Margaret and husband Brian Pruett, who will drive up from Mendocino County for the event. She is a wine maker at Fetzer, creating their white wines. Her sister, Elizabeth Leonardi and her husband Evan Johnson, won’t make the trip from Turkey where she is the U.S. agricultural attache to the Turkish Embassy. Son Zach won’t be able to make it either. He is in Seattle working for Expedia.

Leonardi is glad his children have gone on to what he believes are their varied and interesting lives and careers, leaving the dairy behind.

Dairying, he says, “is really hard work. It’s a pretty tough life…you work like three men.” But, he adds, “we’ve done well, really well, considering.”

He goes on to list a litany of things that impact local dairying interests: the weather, the floods, fluctuations in the ag market “the kick in the stomach with Humboldt Creamery.”

But going organic has stabilized the industry locally, he says, noting that the whole valley is in a unique position to take advantage of that expanding market.

The Leonardi family, he figures, has been dairying in the Eel River Valley for some 105 years, since his granddad, Zachariah, made his way here after he landed at Ellis Island in 1912. He must have dairied in the old country, since that’s what the Italian Swiss did in Monte Cristasie. A lot of local families — the Mognis, the Scalvinis, the Giacominis — also are from Monte Cristasie, Leonardi says.

Leonardi believes his granddad probably worked for local dairies until he and his wife Katharina were able to buy their first dairy, 40 acres on Waddington. That dairy eventually was taken over by Leonardi’s dad, Angelo and wife Kathy. After working his way through Cal Poly in the dairy there, Leonardi returned to the valley and took over his dad’s dairy in 1977, starting with 62 cows. Now he’s grown the family operations, centered out by Pleasant Point, where 350 Holsteins, with a mix of Brown Swiss, are being milked.

Proud as he is of his accomplishments as a dairyman, Leonardi is a multi-faceted man who has other accomplishments to be proud of.

He’s served on the board of the St. Joseph and Redwood Memorial Hospitals and their foundation for a total of 20 years, seeing many positive, if behind the scenes, changes to health care in Humboldt County. He is proud also to have helped start the Ferndale Children’s Center and to have participated in the remodeling of the Community Center. He’s also honored to have been named grand marshal of the Lighted Tractor Parade, an event he’s been so much a part of for so long.

Parade participants can find entry forms at the Fairgrounds, Nilsen’s, The Farm Shop, R&S Livestock Supply and Fernbridge Tractor. There is no charge to enter. Floats will gather by 4:30 pm in the Community Center parking lot for judging, which will begin then and end at 5:30 pm. At 6 pm floats will head up Main Street, past the reviewing stand in front of The Ivanhoe, turning left onto Arlington at the high school to disperse. Trophies, Ferndale Bucks, gifts and gift certificates, all donated by area merchants, individuals and businesses, will be presented at the reviewing stand.

Major sponsors are Pierson Building Center, Eureka, and Ferndale Chamber of Commerce. Major trophies and their sponsors are: Best Overall, the Howard and Cecilia Larsen Memorial, sponsored by The Ivanhoe, Barb, Dave and Lino Mogni and Carol Larsen and family, Erik and Kirk Vodopals and Tonya Smith; Most Lights, Rings Pharmacy; Best Animal Entry, the Harlan Detlefsen Memorial, Ferndale Veterinary; Best Junior Entry, the Les Martin Memorial, sponsored by the family; Oldest Tractor, The Farm Shop; Most Original, Ferndale Clothing; Judge’s Choice, Le Art Endeavor; Best Animation, Ferndale Emporium; Most Christmas Spirit, the Earl Ambrosini Memorial, Wells Fargo Advisors; Best Christmas Theme, Golden Gait Mercantile. Additional information about the parade can be obtained by calling Tractor Parade committee members Carol Larsen, 362-6281, Rick Phillis, 496-4475. or Lisa Hindley, 599-9088. Jim and Nadine Bass complete this year’s committee.

 

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.