On Sunday, May 7th, our Anderson Valley Advertiser's online edition feature “Mendocino County Today” contained a relatively brief notice alluding to a Fort Bragg City Council Closed Session item concerning the city's “significant exposure” to anticipated litigation. A link was provided to the City of Fort Bragg's website along with this bit of supposition, “No official word yet on what it all means, but the City of Fort Bragg may be cracking down on the Hospitality Center and/or Hospitality House for violation of HC's use permit. And/or the Hospitality Center may be preparing to sue Fort Bragg for cracking down on them.”
Operating on my own hunch that the latter guesswork was the one potentially linked to the closed session item I ventured to the podium during the public comment section of the regular City Council meeting on Monday evening, May 8th to frame a question about the possibility of the powers-that-be at Fort Bragg's Hospitality House and/or Hospitality Center threatening the city government with litigation. City councils almost never respond to public comments about closed session items, but they are allowed to refute public comments that are obviously erroneous. After re-enforcing that idea I put it to the council in a straightforward statement, 'the Board of Directors of Hospitality Center/House is considering legal action against the City of Fort Bragg.'
There was no comment from Mayor Lindy Peters, the rest of the council, nor City Manager, Linda Ruffing. The interpretation: No comment, meant no refutation of the statement I offered; meaning, yes, Hospitality House/Center is threatening the City of Fort Bragg with legal action.
The reason for the potential litigation stems from what occurred at the March 22nd Public Safety Committee meeting at Fort Bragg's Town Hall. The major takeaway from that event was City Manager Ruffing stating that Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center would have to file for an amendment to their 2003 use permit regarding the twice daily food program at Hospitality House on McPherson [sic] Street. The 2003 use permit contained the following statement: “The City is not authorizing an increase in the intensity of use at the site...” In the thirteen years since the 2003 permit was granted the number of bed nights at Hospitality House has risen from about 6,000 per year to slightly over 7,000 annually while the number of meals served has nearly doubled from approximately 12,000 per year in 2003 to over 23,000 in 2016.
Hospitality House and Hospitality Center have frequently touted the numbers of “clients” they serve as a public relations means as well as a reason for grant monies, but they have taken little responsibility for problems caused by those “clients,” including frequent disruptions to surrounding businesses. The President of Hospitality Center's governing board, Lynelle Johnson pretty much takes a high and mighty position, something akin to: We (Hospitality) are feeding the poor and homeless and (some would say) “allegedly” helping the mentally ill, so the surrounding businesses be damned. Johnson has her supporters, a goodly number of coast residents who are blind to the on the street realities of the downtown locales of Hospitality House and Center. Some of these supporters are not hesitant to point fingers and cast aspersions at anyone who dares speak out about the problems created by Hospitality House or Center. On the Mendocino Coast it is harder to find a sharper-tongued or meaner-spirited soul than a holier-than-thou supporter of Hospitality Center or House.
Confusing the issue is Fort Bragg City Manager Ruffing who, at times, has seemingly gone out of her way to shield Hospitality House and Hospitality Center from criticism, going so far as to withhold dozens of emails from a downtown business owner from City Council members for approximately three weeks.
The newer members of Fort Bragg's City Council (four of them have served less than two and a half years) appear to want a different approach when it comes to Hospitality. Emblematic of the new council was the removal of an item from the March 13th Consent Calendar by Councilman Bernie Norvell. That item would have approved a bid to roof the historic Guest House for an amount $57,000 over estimate ($237,000 compared to the $180,000 original estimate). After much discussion about prior bids, the source of the estimate, roofing materials, and hand wringing that turning down the bid might lead to a much longer wait to get a needed repair accomplished, former Mayor Dave Turner motioned and current Mayor Lindy Peters seconded approval of the $237,000 roofing bid. However, Norvell, Vice-Mayor Will Lee (both elected in 2016) and Councilman Mike Cimolino (elected in November, 2014) voted no.
At the May 8th City Council meeting the Guest House roofing project returned to the agenda. This time with a bid of $178,500 (from a Salt Lake City based construction company), $1,420 less than the original estimate. In other words the three “No” votes by Norvell, Lee, and Cimolino in March saved the city nearly $60,000.
In fairness to Turner, he ackowledged his March stance as an error and reversed his vote on May 8th, as did Peters. It should be stated that as far as matters concerning Hospitality House and Hospitality Center go, Mayor Peters and Councilman Norvell have been at the front of the line when it comes to raising serious questions.