How do you top the story of the Fort Bragg City Council approving an ordinance that provides for cannabis manufacturing within the industrial zones of city limits. With four magic words that at once ignite and divide public sentiment in Mendocino County's second largest municipality: Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center.
On Monday night, February 13, the cannabis measure was adopted by a unanimous 4-0 vote (Councilman Dave Turner was out of town) with nary a grumble in the forty person audience. On the other hand, the Hospitality Center, situated in what was once the Old Coast Hotel at 101 N. Franklin Street, and its flagship entity Hospitality House (237 N. McPherson St.) prompted public comments of support and many more questioning its ability to function within Fort Bragg's downtown business district.
All four councilmembers present asked Mendocin Coast Hospitality Center (MCHC) Board President Lynelle Johnson tough questions, beginning with Mayor Lindy Peters who wanted to know if MCHC's funding through grants was secure into the future. Ms. Johnson essentially dodged a straightforward answer by replying that MCHC is always looking for new grants. Peters asked about Hospitality Center (HC) and Hospitality House's (HH) relationship with neighbors. Ms. Johnson ducked again, citing her role with the “Downtown Watch,” an ad hoc group which has devolved into a pat-each-other-on-the-back gathering of pro-Hospitality business owners (a scant handful), most of whom are outside the immediate sphere of negative behaviors emanating from HH and HC. The negatives are: clientele who use drugs, are drunk, take food from HH and turn it into garbage on the streets, spit on neighbors doors and windows, urinate on neighbors walls, leave human and canine feces unattented on neighbors' property; the list goes on. The additional, and probably more important, negative is this: HH and HC staff and its Board are in denial about the mounting public safety issues that some of their clients are creating on the streets of Fort Bragg.
As questions from Councilmembers Will Lee, Mike Cimolino, and Bernie Norvell followed those from Mayor Peters something did become clear: Ms. Johnson, occasionally accompanied by MCHC chief operations officer, Paul Davis, were not going to give straight answers. Case in point: the packet of supporting materials for the MCHC agenda item contained more than two dozen emails from a business owner near Hospitality House, describing in detail almost daily instances of essentially criminal behavior going on in the alleyway behind HH (See my Nov. 16, 2016 article for just a few examples; similar behavioral incidents have continued through today). In response to questions from Councilman Norvell about the problems described in the emails from the business neighbor of HH, Paul Davis stated that he had been in more or less constant contact with said business owner. Councilman Norvell more or less flatly contradicted Davis, as in something to the effect that the business owner had seldom, if ever, received any responses to the emails. Readers may want to keep in mind that the business owner who sent the emails pointing out problems right outside HH's gate, problems/incidents involving HH's clientele, also included possible solutions in several of the emails. No one, including Mr. Davis, even bothered to respond to those emails.
In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird there is a line that reads, “The truth is not in the Delafields.” When it comes to the Hospitality House, the truth is not in Ms. Johnson or Mr. Davis. Lee's narrator Scout Finch goes on to expand on her thought, “[These] were simply guides to daily living: never take a check from a Delafield without a discreet call to the bank.”
Back to the emails. There appear to be about twenty-seven of them in the supporting materials packet for the February 13th city council meeting. Reliable sources indicate that there were more, but some may have been withheld to protect the identity of the businnes owner and family members. Why does the business owner feel the need to remain anonymous. Simple, cursory conversations with other business owners will let you know that they either don't want to get involved, though they share similar questions, concerns, and frustrations. In addition some, if not many, business owners in Fort Bragg feel that HH and HC have been treated like sacred cows by city government in the recent past. Whether or not that is the absolute truth, folks are wary of speaking up about issues connected to Hospitality Center or Hospitality House.
At the risk of burying the lead, I've left an elephant in the Town Hall room out until this point. A simple glance at the emails sent regarding a laundry list of ongoing problems around Hospitality House made this reader stop at one dated January 19, 2017 (the emails run from late October, 2016 into February, 2017). At this point the business owner gave up addressing the emails to HH and/or HC and took the matter up with Fort Bragg's City Manager, Linda Ruffing.
The Jan. 19th email to Ms. Ruffing redacts the business owner's name and address. Otherwise, this the entirety of it: “My name is __________ My husband and I were born and raised in Fort Bragg, and have a deep love for this unique and special community.
“I have a business located at ______________ in Fort Bragg which shares an alley with the Hospitality House at 237 N. McPherson Street. The City did a beautiful job of putting in this alley, and it should be a pleasant and convenient way to to go to the post office, get a gallon of milk from my neighbors at Purity and say hello to the people receiving services at the Hospitality House.
“Instead, it is full of feces, garbage, urine, loitering, drugs, alcohol and physical fighting among Hospitality Center clients who are waiting for services, creating a dangerous and insanitary environment. It is unsafe for those using services as well as residents and visitors, who are vital to our town's economy. The Hospitality House should provide full time staff monitoring people showing up for sign in and services, just as they provide staff for full time monitoring of the emergency shelter service. At this time, there are no staff monitoring the clients waiting for services in the alley, and this is unsafe for all concerned.
“I am sending over, in separate emails, several letters I have already sent regarding this subject. The situation remains unchanged and I am hopeful that the City of Fort Bragg will help in solving this problem. Please let me know your thoughts on this issue and how we may best address it. I would love to see the alley [behind HH] safe for everyone to walk, drive down and use. I care about my store and community. I have invested time and money and am deeply committed to both.
“Our community has great potential for growth in all areas and I look forward to working together to make our town a great place to live and work.
“Please make sure this email and the others I am sending to you are sent to Fort Bragg City Council.
“Thank you for your consideration and your service to our city.”
When did City Manager Ruffing send the emails to the City Council members? As far as can be ascertained, she waited until February 8th when the agenda for the Feb. 13th city council meeting was made public. In the meantime Ms. Ruffing went around to several of the shop owners in the business district gathering information and very possibly contacted Ms. Johnson of MCHC on more than one occasion. Meanwhile the Fort Bragg City Council members had four to five days, including a weekend, to pursue the topics broached in these emails after Ms. Ruffing received them from the business owner. Certainly Ms. Ruffing is entitled to do as much research on a civic matter as possible, but withholding the emails from the City Council for approximately twenty days leads to ethical questions best left to the citizens of Fort Bragg to raise for themselves.
The very same Hospitality House/Hospitality Center issue will be taken up again by the Fort Bragg City Council's Public Safety Committee (Mayor Peters and Councilman Norvell will be there) on Wednesday, February 15, at 3 p.m. In Town Hall.