Friday, June 02, 2006

Local Government Used To Persecute

(This blog post is strictly about a local issue in Gualala, California, where I have lived and worked for many years. To me, it is an abuse of the power of a local government agency, in this case an almost ad hoc municipal advisory council. It will have some interest to some of you across the Fruited Plain, since it illustrates how government not done well can trample on our freedoms by intruding in matters that really are not in its jurisdiction. Unless you take the point of view that everything your neighbor does is your business. I hope you don't.)

I went to a meeting of the Gualala Municipal Advisory Council (GMAC), hoping to see local government in action. What I saw filled me with despair.

GMAC is an advisory function. It does not appear to be chartered to make or enforce regulations, but to inquire into matters and make recommendations to Mendocino County agencies. How exactly that is done was made very mysterious to me as the meeting progressed.

I must admit that I knew very little about GMAC actions and activities prior to this meeting. I have lived in Gualala for over seven years, have worked in real estate here for the past five years, and have followed the activities of GMAC only through the reports I read in our local weekly newspaper, The Independent Coast Observer. I never attended a meeting, although my impression of GMAC through the news articles I read was that it was primarily concerned with issues associated with the real estate of this area. In particular, GMAC played a very active role in reviewing requests to build homes and other structures in the greater Gualala area. A lot of what they did in this process of review seemed to duplicate the work of the Mendocino County Planning and Building Department, but I assumed that the county department must have delegated certain functions to GMAC. My assumption was wrong.

The GMAC meeting began in a state of confusion, as the agenda for the meeting was reviewed in a lengthy process reminiscent of a Chinese fire drill. One council member wondered where his item was on the agenda, apparently an item he had told the secretary would not be on this agenda. Another couple of agenda items had fallen through an email crack. The numbering and renumbering of agenda items in the process of creating and approving the agenda for the evening confused everyone, particularly the council members.

Finally, the meeting began with “Public input on Non-agenda items.” Of course, several people got up to speak on an issue that was an agenda item, the very agenda item that had caused me to come to this meeting in the first place. The GMAC chairman didn’t seem to recognize that she was receiving presentations that a bit later in the meeting would be presented again when their topic on the agenda came up. I felt cheated, because my reason for attending this meeting was to point out that the GMAC did not have jurisdiction over the issue which had been placed on the agenda, and here it was already being addressed totally inappropriately.

Not long ago Alice and I concluded four years on the Point Arena School Board. Each meeting our chairman explained that “Public input on Non-agenda items” was confined to items which were not already on the agenda. I remember only one instance when the chairman had to remind an individual that they were jumping the gun on an agenda item, and that their comments would have to wait their proper time.

The council then took up the first agenda item, a request to recommend approval of a building plan for a single-family home. The chairman and another council member recused themselves from this review, and the chairman passed the gavel on to another council member. Later the chairman realized that she had passed the gavel to the wrong council member.

At this point I should mention that the building permit being reviewed had already been reviewed and approved by the Mendocino County Planning and Building Department. In the course of their review, they had sent one of their planners down to walk the site and its environs. What the GMAC did next can only be categorized as incompetent. First the chairman asked the council members who had been assigned to do an on-site review for their input. The council members assigned the review did not know they had been assigned, and had nothing to say. Another member who lived near the proposed building site then took over doing the review, and it was obvious that neither he nor any other member of the council had reviewed any of the application paperwork. Also apparent was that the council members didn’t understand the regulations concerning height limitations, whether a property was adjacent to a government park, whether it was in an exceptionally scenic area, and what paperwork had been provided by the county to assist their revue.

Fortunately for the poor applicants, they had done a very diligent job of putting their permit package together for county review, had brought all their papers and plans with them, and could show the council what had already been approved by the county. In fact, the applicants demonstrated greater knowledge of the permit requirements than the council members, particularly on such matters as determining how to compute the maximum building height allowed on the east side of Highway One. Finally, a call was made by the erroneously acting chairman for a motion to recommend approval. After all that had transpired, making a simple motion to recommend approval should have been very simple. That was not to be the case. The council member we expected was making the motion we soon found out was stating a long rambling rehash of the review which had just been so laboriously conducted and concluded. There was nothing in his remarks that had the slightest resemblance to a motion. After a period of prolonged confusion, another council member attempted to state a motion. She got off to a good start, but then she too started to wander off creating a motion to recapping what had been reviewed. The motion was passed unanimously, I think. I feel sure that whatever the secretary writes as the motion that was passed will have only a passing resemblance to the motion that was made.

The next application was much simpler and straightforward, and apparently had been a long time in review anyway. The council member who made the GMAC review basically just confirmed that the applicants had done what the county required, and accepted their verbal assurances that that was the case. What I now saw was what appeared to be the usual strange process of making a GMAC motion. This time the motion was stated as a recommendation. “I recommend that..” instead of “I move that we recommend approval…” Whatever. Motion made and passed.

My mind was beginning to think of this meeting in terms of such yardsticks as elephant gestation periods.

Finally we arrived at the agenda item that had brought me from my comfortable evening in Buddy’s Apartment, where I can blog and pet Buddy at the same time. It was the “July Forum with Mendocino County Animal Control,” on which several members of the public had already made full presentations. So now the chairman called on them again, and they repeated themselves. Although the ground rules for presentations stated that they should only be addressing the need for a forum next month, no one, including myself, honored that rule. The reason was pretty obvious. The GMAC had already voted at a previous meeting, 4-2, to have the forum. Since having the forum was a foregone conclusion, both sides were already stating their cases. And my case was that the forum GMAC had decided to have should not occur. First, GMAC has no charter or jurisdiction over singling out individuals on animal control issues. Secondly, the parties they have singled out cannot speak in their own behalf, because they are under and honoring a court-imposed gag rule. Two of the individuals in attendance at this meeting were also under the same court restraining order, but one of them made a presentation, and then later repeated it. So much for honoring the restraining order. Third, the forum should address the entire issue of pets roaming freely on owners’ property, not just one family’s pets.

The GMAC members then took some time to extemporize on the need for the animal control forum. Apparently they recognized that there was nothing in their duties and responsibilities that required them to host the forum, so they decided that it would be a good opportunity to allow people to vent, in this case, against their neighbors who have already gone through a lot of pain and suffering the past eight months. The two pups escaped and efforts to recapture them have been very expensive and emotionally draining. One of their two mature wolf-dogs became sick and, after a very expensive operation and medical treatment, died. Then the wife found she had breast cancer, and for lack of medical insurance, the mastectomy was performed in India. Just on their return from India, the husband had an automobile accident that required an operation to repair spinal cord and ligament damage.

And now this almost incoherent advisory council had taken it on itself to sponsor a forum to further vex and bedevil two people who deserve better, particularly in their hours of greatest need and suffering.

Why? What is the need? What will be accomplished? Why is it important to do it now? Since Fish & Game have already determined that the pups are not wild animals, since when does an advisory council with no animal control duties or responsibilities get involved in listening to one neighbor gripe about another neighbor’s pets?

If GMAC is going to have a forum about gripes about neighbor’s pets, they had better include all of us who let their pets roam free on their property. I let Buddy roam freely on our property, and so do most of the other dog owners in this area let their dogs roam freely on their properties too. If the GMAC is going to have a gripe forum for one family’s pets, they better have it for all.


Anonymous said...

I have just one question. Do we not pay the Mendocino county building department enough money to make the standard decisions every other building department routinely has to make? Why would they fund some nosy old farts to pretend they have some power over building decisions???????????

Major Combs said...

Good point. All that this whole process can be boiled down to is that a government agency was established for the Gualala area that has no function except to recommend to the county on building permit issues. Anything else it does further wastes taxpayer time and resources. Among recent actions it has supported helping save the Great Barrier Reef from ocean acidification, and forbidding GMO in Mendocino County. The Gualala advisory board was woefully inadequate to perform either of these totally unnecessary and unchartered functions. The greater their incompetence and irrelevance on an issue, the greater their zeal to publicly expose it.