On Monday evening, July 13th, the Fort Bragg City Council met in front of a subdued audience of 25-30 citizens. Anna Shaw, head of the Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center (MCHC) was there, so were a few of that non-profit's board members. None of them spoke. Presumably the agenda item they were there to witness was Item 5A, consideration of a resolution for the Fort Bragg City Council to request that the Mendocino County Registrar of Voters verify signatures submitted with a ballot initiative entitled “Prohibiting Social Service Organizations in the Central Business District.”
The initiative is aimed directly at Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center's acquisition of the Old Coast Hotel, at the northwest corner of Oak and Franklin Streets, as a consolidated mental health services facility as well as the site for 5-6 transitional housing units. The Old Coast Hotel (OCH) was acquired through a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) of $1.2 million dollars. Approximately $900,000 of that grant money went to the Carine family, the owners of the property The purchase of the Old Coast Hotel from the Carines began to materialize last autumn after a deal to acquire a building at 300 North Harrison St., for similar purposes, fell through in the spring of 2014.
Critics of the whole process screamed bloody murder when they learned that city officials and council members, most prominently Mayor Dave Turner, had discussed the possible Old Coast Hotel deal in mid November, 2014 and the general public allegedly didn't find out about the Old Coast Hotel aspect of the CDBG deal until it was noticed in the local newspaper a few days before a city council public hearing in January, 2015. Here's where reality and some folks' choice of reality cross paths. Since the CDBG deal had already been heard at a city council public hearing in late March, 2014, technically the CDBG grant money for a new location (the Old Coast Hotel) could have been awarded by the City of Fort Bragg to MCHC without the subsequent public hearing.
Some of the same people who cried foul about the Old Coast Hotel were also the objectors to the 300 Harrison Street site. To be fair, some folks were not yet involved. Therein lies more of the rub. Civic participation requires just that, participation., not just crying wolf when you suddenly awake from a Rip Van Winkle length slumber and discover one or two things in your community are not to your liking.
Despite more than a week's worth of out of state vacation in late December/early January, this writer was aware of the Old Coast Hotel becoming the potential new site for the CDBG grant before leaving for said vacation. The reason: Sometime in early December I called Jennifer Owen, the City of Fort Bragg's go-to person about CDBG. My impression is that Ms. Owen has been perfectly willing and open to discuss ongoing CDBG grants with anyone who asks her. Apparently, none of the cry-wolfers bothered to ask her about the potential new site (OCH) for the mental health services facility/transitional housing location or they would have had knowledge of it within a week or two after Mayor Turner learned about it.
Another curious aspect to the opposition to the Old Coast Hotel as the new site for the CDBG property is the documented fact that some of the most vocal opponents to the 300 North Harrison site voiced the opinion in 2014 that one of the appropriate locations for the mental health services/transitional housing units was in Fort Bragg's business district.
Contradictions abound in this entire scenario and, by no means, are those contradictions confined to opponents of the OCH location. Fault lies with the director of Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center, or perhaps more accurately with the non-profit's board for not giving MCHC and its titular leader, Anna Shaw, direction toward making contact last autumn with the neighbors of the Old Coast Hotel, particularly with the businesses within a block or so up and down Franklin Street. An effort at explanation last November and/or December, in advance of the January city council public hearing, might have gone a long way toward assuaging concerns. A seemingly valid comment/complaint I have heard repeatedly from at least one business owner runs along these lines, 'where is their (MCHC) business plan?'
Despite attendance at numerous city and countywide meetings at which MCHC has made presentations concerning the Old Coast Hotel site, this writer has yet to witness anything approaching a clear and detailed plan from MCHC about just how they intend to run the facility at the Old Coast Hotel on a day to day basis. What I have seen are handouts that extol the virtues of mental health facilities and transitional housing; more pie in the sky platitudes than diagrammed Xes and O's, if I may be permitted a sports analogy.
Heck, yeah, Fort Bragg and the Mendocino Coast obviously need many more housing units to help the homeless transition to functional citizenry. Equally obvious, the area is woefully short on mental health services. MCHC is a cog in the relatively new privatized form of mental health service on the Mendocino Coast. The jury is still out as to the capability of MCHC, or its contract partner Ortner Management Group, to adequately provide such care and service.
Of course, there are those who signed the petition for the initiative prohibiting social services in Fort Bragg's central business district (CBD) just because they are ignorant about and afraid of all things having to do with mental health service. Some of them may express their dismay that I dare to say such a thing, but it is as true as the certainty that bigotry still exists in this country. You don't have to fly a Confederate flag to think like the worst brand of redneck.
At the July 13th meeting, the Fort Bragg City Council eventually voted 5-0 to send the initiative to the County Registrar of Voters to verify the signatures. Here are the next possible steps. If enough signatures are verifiable, the initiative will come back before the Fort Bragg City Council. At that point, the council, by a simple majority vote could adopt the idea into the municipal code. A second option is that if the council does not do so itself, the initiative would be set for ballot approval or denial, by a 50% plus one vote. This voting process would break down one of two ways: If the verified signatures amount to more than 15% of Fort Bragg's registered voters a special election would be called for as soon as feasibly possible. If the number of verifiable signatures falls between 10% and 15% of the registered voters, the ballot initiative would become part of the next general election in November, 2016.
The contradictions and ironies associated with this issue go back to some of those first objectors to the 300 N. Harrison St. site being thoroughly ignorant that a transitional housing unit had already been existing in relative quiet for several years just a few doors up, on the opposite side of Harrison Street. A current oddity concerns the very wording within the initiative and existing codes. Here's the pertinent language: “This measure would add language to the Fort Bragg Municipal Code to provide that a social service organization is not a permitted use within the Central Business District zoning district unless such organization was established and existed within the district prior to January 1, 2015.”
One paragraph later: “A social service organization is defined by the Fort Bragg Municipal Code as...” After a paragraph long description of what constitutes a social service organization the code states, “Does not include day-care services, emergency shelters, and transitional housing...”
BAM! This initiative could pass, causing MCHC to cease and desist mental health service operations at the Old Coast Hotel location, but the transitional housing units apparently would not be touched by the passage of this initiative.