Saturday, November 26, 2022

A New Chief of Police, Swapping One Interim CEO For Another, Water Alert Declared—Highlights from Fort Bragg’s City Council Meeting

The Fort Bragg City Council swore in a new chief of police and hired another retired public employee as an interim city manager Monday night.

Last month, the council bid farewell to Interim Police Chief John Naulty and Interim City Manager David Spaur, who were both serving for a limited time due to their retirements from public service. Last night, Neil Cervenka, formerly of Turlock, took his oath of office as the new chief. Cervenka thanked family and friends and pledged his loyalty to his new community, saying, “I commit to concern for this community and all the issues that affect it. I commit to compassion for all segments of this community regardless of status. And I commit to courage, to do the right thing, no matter if it’s difficult.”

In another key position,  Peggy Ducey can put in 960 hours a year as Interim City Manager, in keeping with the rules of the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). She will receive no benefits or any other form of compensation outside of an hourly rate of $76.30, starting July 26.

And the council adopted a resolution to declare a Stage 1 water alert, asking for a citywide water conservation goal of 5% to 10% and prohibiting wasteful water use. Water customers are only supposed to irrigate on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays before 9am and after 6pm, and restaurants will only serve water upon request.

Operations Manager John Smith told the council that water in the Noyo River, one of the city’s three water sources, is diminishing. “The Noyo River is currently at 6 cubic feet per second,” he told the council on Monday. “It was 6.75 when I wrote this, which is still 4.3 million gallons a day, which sounds like a lot, but it’s dropping about 1.5 cubic feet per week.”

Smith added that the city’s small desalination plant is ready to go as a last resort, and promised to keep working on the city goal of storing 60 million gallons, an estimated four months’ supply.

And officials are preparing for the next election, just a month after publishing results from the last election.

City Clerk June Lemos told the council that the deadline to return nomination papers to run for

Fort Bragg City Council has been extended to August 17, because Vice-Mayor Jessica Morsell-Haye is not seeking re-election.  Council member Lindy Peters’ papers have been certified, and he is qualified to be on the November ballot.

The Council heard a number of reports, among them a draft of a feasibility study to diversify the local economy by developing the former Georgia Pacific Mill site. As its tourism-based economy crashed during COVID, the city received $137,000 in CARES Act money from the U.S. Economic Development Agency, plus a $10,000 California Sea Grant for the Blue Economy Symposium to develop new ideas to create sustainable jobs and industries.

However, as Morsell-Haye pointed out, the former Georgia-Pacific mill site is not public property. “This study was initiated at a time when we were in negotiations for that property,” she said. “We’re talking about uses on property that we do not control.”

Last year, Mendocino Railway, or the Skunk Train, won an eminent domain case against Georgia Pacific and purchased 272 acres of the mill site property according to the terms of a stipulation for $1,230,000.

Though the Skunk Train does not engage in interstate commerce, its lawyers claim that its status as a railroad means that it is subject to federal jurisdiction, which exempts it from local and state permitting regulations. In 2019, the company declared that it would not be seeking permits from the city of Fort Bragg  to do work on the property, but that it was happy to make a donation to the city equal to the cost of a building permit. 

The City sued the Skunk, asking a local judge to declare that the railway is not a public utility, and to command it to comply with all city ordinances. The First District Court of Appeals briefly placed a stay on the case after Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan declined to throw it out, but the stay was dissolved after about five weeks. The City and the Skunk are scheduled to be back in court for a case management conference in September.

On Monday night, Chris Hart, of Mendocino Railway, called in to the City Council meeting to complain that his company made only a brief appearance in a document concerning land it owns. “I do feel that Mendocino Railway’s perspective could have been more incorporated,” he said. “It is concerning that even though we are a local company that owns much of the land and is trying to invest millions, we’re not considered a stakeholder or an asset. Instead we’re shown as an obstacle. The study states that we interfered with the City’s verbal agreement with GP when we used eminent domain in the summer of 2021. It makes no mention of the City’s interference five months earlier.”

Last year, the City Council wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation, urging it not to award a railroad rehabilitation and improvement financing loan to Mendocino Railway. Skunk Train lawyers sent the City a cease and desist letter, threatening to sue for defamation.

In another update, the council also heard from Parents and Friends Incorporated, a non-profit organization that is building a four-bedroom residential care facility on Cypress Street for people with developmental disabilities or age-related disabilities like Alzheimer’s or dementia. The organization received a $3.6 million Community Development Block Grant for the project, which started construction in April of this year. The deadline is May 31 of next year, and they expect to be finished in February.

The Council also heard a report from consultant Marie Jones about the Eagles Hall, a well-loved venue that is currently in escrow with an unknown potential buyer. Council member Tess Albin Smith was concerned that the building could be “razed to the ground,” but Jones told her that it would probably be expensive to tear down, and it’s a historical landmark, which means the city’s planning department and council would have to sign off on a demolition. There is enough parking for four living units, but, like so much else about the status of the property, nothing is known about the plans for its future.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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