The Power of Showing Up, Lost Credibility and Railroad News

The Power of Showing Up-Have you ever been to a school board meeting? I hadn’t until the special meeting on July 11, ostensibly to discuss the “Future of the Eureka High School Automotive Program.” I learned a few things.

One thing I learned is that NO ONE SHOWS UP at the typical school board meetings, at least the Eureka City Schools board meetings. There were about 70 people in attendance; typically they get half a dozen. Another thing I learned was that the ECS officials in attendance (Van Vleck, Olson and Eagles) had no intention of engaging in a real discussion. Van Vleck presented a PowerPoint show to convince the crowd that the current curriculum could not be sustained. He was so desperate to make his point that he actually presented the results of a KINS telephone poll in support of his position. I learned that there is a vast range of competence and conscientiousness among the five members of this particular board.

When it came to community input, we were limited to three minutes each. The speakers included graduates of the program, and representatives of many local dealerships. As it got close to 10pm, it seemed that the tide had turned, the Board members were making plans for a followup meeting on the next Friday and I went home. The only two elected officials in attendance, Marian Brady and Rex Bohn, stayed until the bitter end, bless their hearts. You could have knocked me over with a  blackboard eraser when I read in the next day’s  paper that the Friday meeting was off and a 3-2 vote had been taken to close the program. I don’t know who did what to who to finally end up, a couple of days later, with a compromise that essentially saved the program but I learned a third valuable lesson:  DON’T LEAVE EARLY.  The bureaucrats have all the time in the world and they can wait till the wee hours of the morning if need be, to get their way.  You’d think I would have learned by now.  I should mention that Mr. John Fullerton was consistently clearheaded and effective in moving things along. Let’s hope the message has been received that the taxpayers, stakeholders and students want the program. As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  If that crowd hadn’t shown up,  the program would be gone for sure. 

Lost Credibility-  “Reputation is a bubble” as the saying goes, or maybe a balloon that, once popped, cannot be reconstructed.  Just about everyone in the County has weighed in on the Dan Johnson debacle. I expect to hear any day now that the President, both Popes and Jay-Z have issued statements. The point is that NO ONE is defending Mr.  Johnson’s actions. The best that his friends can do is point out that he has made charitable contributions, as any major businessperson in the county does. Well, good for him. However, the idiocy he demonstrated in believing that he,  and only he, could read and recall a letter that was published in Newsweek and probably a dozen other publications is profound and calls into question his basic judgment. It takes a certain type of megalomania to do what he did.

I thought of that during the Healy Brothers Building block party: Mr. Kramer celebrating another excellent project, Mr. Johnson hiding from his constituents and issuing snarky non-apologies.  We need maturity in our civic leaders. Please consider running for the school boards in your area. Our kids need you.

The Train –as you probably know the $20K study by the folks in Washington state concluded that the EastWest route(s) are not viable and would cost over a billion to construct, even if a clear strategy for its use were developed.  This brings us back to where we were in the beginning, with the North-South route costing somewhat less but more importantly, offering transportation for the cargo we know is available- tourists. Tourists to fill our hotels.  Tourists to rent cars and go on tours and excursions and swing around in the treetops. As anyone who has ever ridden the train down to San Rafael will tell you, the train ride through the Eel River Canyon could easily be one of the major tourist attractions on the West Coast. A different aspect of the rairoad issue will be the subject of the Harbor Working Group’s July meeting, which takes place Wednesday noon at the Samoa Cookhouse and will feature a talk on the possibility of shipping between here and Stockton. (Click on “Community Forums”.)  These meetings are always interesting. ‘Nuff said.  

Henderson Center- Shopping the Way It’s Meant To Be

       What were you doing in 1946? I can’t remember but then I have the excuse that I wasn’t born yet. A group of businesspeople were busy in 1946 forming the Henderson Center Merchants’ Association (HCMA) and friendly Henderson Center has been an integral part of Eureka’s economy ever since.

       I may as well confess at the outset that Henderson Center is my favorite neighborhood in Eureka. When I moved back here in 1993 I spent considerable time looking for a house to buy near Henderson Center but there was absolutely nothing available. Even now,  when I drive through I see the ghosts of businesses past.  Remember McGaraghan’s? Grace’s Pizza? The Purity store? Steve’s Coney Island when Steve was still there and it was located down by Finnegan & Nason, now the Tailwagger’s Thrift shop? Remember Nygard & Green?  I had been a bit worried when Robert’s closed and it seemed that the blight of empty storefronts that has plagued downtown since the economy  went south was going to be echoed in the Center. I am happy to report that’s not true.

        Henderson Center is thriving. It is the most user-friendly and walkable district in town, and with its unlimited parking – no racing to move your car after two hours- is evolving into the kind of small-town shopping experience that puts the malls of the world to shame.

       Let’s define our terms. Henderson Center as defined by the HCMA is everything between D Street and G Street, and from Dollison to Hodgson.  Although the HCMA has 60 members at present, there are a total of 120 businesses in the area, many of which don’t fall into the “merchant” category. There are banks and brokers, insurance agencies, realtors, medical offices, ad agencies etc etc. It has been a bit of a challenge to build membership among the non- “merchants” even though membership dues are only $100 annually.

       The HCMA has no paid staff and therefore is a volunteer organization with each member also having at least one business to run so most of their expenditures are for promotion of their sponsored events such as the summer Farmer’s Market (Thursdays from 10am to 1pm), the Hallowe’en Trick or Treat , and the Holiday Open House. They have learned to do more with less but look forward to increasing membership so that they can advertise more.  The current officers  are: President: Jack Rieke of Shafer’s, Vice-President:  Linda Jo Alexander of Promises Bridal and Formal Wear, Secretary: Bev Sousa of Bev’s Real Kids, and Treasurer: Sue Johnson of The Shady Lady, window coverings.

       The lack of a paid staff has precluded the HCMA from negotiating with landlords as a group but the upcoming changes in the neighborhood are exciting. Look for the old Tailwaggers site to become a pizza restaurant.  The former  Safeway pharmacy is vacant for now, but is an excellent location that will surely be snapped up. Cornerstone Computers is developing a huge following for its excellent customer service. And the old Robert’s building is being prepped as a grocery and deli, and the liquor license app is already posted in the window. Good things are coming to this neighborhood of mostly independent stores, and I’m looking forward to having a nice glass of wine while the leisurely traffic on F Street cruises by.

Hope they have outdoor tables.




The Coastal Commission – Short of Clout, Short of Staff

        Ever since the Coastal Commission was created in 1976 we’ve been hearing about what a dreadful burden it places upon developers. The truth, as always, is more complex.

       Last month Sean Parker (sound familiar?  Prinicipal at Napster,  the smarmy character played by Justin Timberlake in the Facebook movie) decided to have a romantic seaside wedding in Big Sur.  In a voluntary settlement, he ended up paying $2.5M to set straight the many violations he caused by “building rock walls, a stone bridge, a cottage, dance floor and other structures in a sensitive Big Sur forest without permits” as reported by Paul Rogers of the SJ Mercury-News. The Coastal Commission brokered the deal, but it turns out they have NO authority to issue fines when people commit gross violations like blocking access to public beaches, destroy wetlands or build unpermitted homes. Under the law as it is now written, the Coastal Commission has to go to court to enforce its own rules.  

         On top of this, Rogers reports, “The Commission has only 12 staff members in its enforcement division to police the entire 1100-mile coastline. It has a total staff of 135, compared with 212 in 1980. Its budget is $19M, half what it was in 1980 when adjusted for inflation.”  

        But change may be coming.

        A bill moving through the state Legislature would give the Coastal Commission the ability to impose fines.  The bill,  AB976, by Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, passed the Assembly in May by a 42-32 vote, and the measure has already cleared two Senate committees. Atkins notes that more than 20 other State agencies can issue fines on their own. In the case of the Coastal Commission, limited staffing and funds have resulted in over 1637  backlogged cases, meaning that unless the parties voluntarily settle, many violations go uncorrected.  Here’s a breakdown:

Blocking access to public beaches: 29%

Illegal road building and grading: 27%

Development without permits in sensitive habitat and wetlands: 24%

Removal of coastal vegetation without permits: 24%

Water pollution: 13%

Diking, filling and dredging: 8%

Geological hazards: 6%

Marine resources: 5%

Public safety: 4%

Flood hazards: 3%

(Numbers add up to more than 100% because some cases have multiple violations.)

       Look for this to be a major environmental battle in Sacramento this year.  The Chamber of Commerce is definitely opposing it. On the other hand,  having laws on the books which aren’t enforced consistently does not contribute to a stable business environment.   Meanwhile, the settlement money will be used to build public trails in Big Sur among other projects.  Ironically, the settlement came about because the Ventana Inn, which was the venue for the wedding, threatened  to cancel unless Parker paid the penalties for their past years of land-use violations.  Gotta love that Silicon Valley money.


What Can the RCEA Do For Your Redwood Coast Business?

Looking for ways to control energy costs? Cut down waste? Conserve resources? You have an ally in your struggle and you may not even know it.  Meet the Redwood Coast Energy Authority.  Their excellent website contains more information than we can squeeze in here,  but their amazing array of services may make them your business’s new best friend.

The Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) is a Joint Powers Authority whose members include the County, the  Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District and the cities of Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka, Ferndale, Fortuna, Rio Dell and Trinidad. Their purpose is “to develop and implement sustainable energy initiatives that reduce energy demand, increase energy efficiency, and advance the use of clean, efficient and renewable resources available in the region.”  Who pays for it?  California utility customers and the program is administered by PG&E and the state Public Utilities Commission. Lots of players, but all you need to do to get started is submit their online application or visit their new local office at 633 3rd Street in Eureka, or call them at 269-1700. Here are some of the services they offer:

-Replacing  your old light bulbs with LED or compact fluorescent lights, and replacing your old neon “OPEN” sign with a more efficient LED model.

-Assessing your business’s lighting, refrigeration, process equipment, heating and ventilating systems and other energy-saving opportunities at your business.  They will even generate a report with available incentives,  recommendations and a financial summary.

-They can hook you up with start-to-finish project management, incentives paid directly to contractors, assistance with zero-interest financing of your utility bill, negotiated discounts with qualified contractors, and more. Did I mention that all these services are FREE or at REDUCED COST?

You can get started by visiting the office at 633 Third Street in Eureka, by calling them at (707) 269-1700 or by submitting this form by email or snailmail. Be sure to save the form to your computer before you fill it out.  Their email address is

The RCEA is involved in many other projects including developing a Comprehensive Action Plan for Energy for the county, also available on the website. They are coordinating the North Coast Plug-in Electrical Vehicle Project  to promote and develop greater use of “PEV”‘s in the area, in which there is enormous interest  (checked gas prices lately?) and are working with the HSU Schatz Energy Research Center, GHD and PG&E to this end. They have also received a $1.75M grant from the State to be used for a biomass power system on the Blue Lake Rancheria,  energy upgrades throughout the Mad River Valley and infrastructure for those PEV’s (charging stations)!

These projects will have enormous impact on our lives and how we do business. Take advantage of these programs and get involved. You’ll be glad you did.

Lies, Spies and the Trouble with Contracting

         I was working away at my desk in Building Two of the Pearl Harbor Navel Shipyard when a painter suddenly appeared, shoved my desk away from the wall and  started rolling paint on the wall, rolling right over the curled-up and chipped paint already there. This was a pre-war building, in other words had survived the 1941 attack, and looked as if it hadn’t been painted since then,  but even I knew they weren’t doing it right. “Shouldn’t you prep it first?” I asked. “Oh, no” said the painter,  “We use this really good paint – don’t need prepping.”

       For the rest of that day and the next, our walls looked as if they developed a case of acne. Finally on the third day I heard someone yelling out on the second-story veranda. It was a young Lt jg chewing out the painting contractor in what we euphemistically called “Shipyard language.”  The next day they finally did the prep and did the job right.

       The young lieutenant was what in the Navy is called a Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative.(COTR).  He had taken a two-week course in managing contracts, developing specs etc and all the other work involved with making sure the Navy and the public were getting what they paid for. Some people foolishly think that contracting solves your workforce problems.  It doesn’t,  but it substitutes a different set of problems that may, in the circumstances,  be easier to staff. It seldom saves money, because if you’re doing it honestly, you have to add the cost of the COTR, and their staff, and their training. All government agencies are committed to contracting “nonessential functions” or “commercial activities”, like painting, janitorial services, laundry etc to civilian companies or individuals. In those days, it was not considered wise to contract out “essential functions” which need to be kept with government employees for security and other concerns, and in a nuclear Naval Shipyard there were plenty of security issues.  

       So, it is with some amount of amazement I’m following the sorry saga of Booz, Hamilton and their not-very-well supervised employee, Ed Snowden.  That a newbie with only three months on the books would be given the kind of access he was given is ridiculous,but this is the kind of risk you take when you contract out work that would more sanely be done by government employees.  The anti-government politics of the last few years has encouraged cuts in staff in favor of contractors who in turn cut corners. Sounds like Booz, Hamilton did.

       In sum, contracting won’t always save you money but it can definitely be the right thing to do if you don’t want to spend your time doing bookkeeping, janitorial work, payroll or whatever.  Just remember that contracting out a function doesn’t make it  go away; it just makes it easier to forget about.  

With that cheery thought, all good wishes for a relaxed and safe Fourth of July.

UPDATE: The Huff Post carried a good piece on the perils of contracting out national security.  It’s in the morning edition of the “Politics” section and I apologize for not being able to get the  link to work .  Worth visiting their site.