On Friday October 16, 2015, the Clerk of the City of Fort Bragg received a petition for a ballot initiative entitled “Prohibiting Social Services in the Central Business District.” On October 19th the City Clerk made a prima facie count of the signatures. Her estimate of valid signatures: 659. Current number of Fort Bragg, CA registered voters: 3,124. That makes the number of signatories to the proposed initiative approximately 22% (more precisely: 21.8%) of the voting populace of Mendocino County's second largest municipality.
Near the end of the October 26th Fort Bragg City Council meeting its five councilmen voted unanimously to send the petition on to the County Registrar of Voters for an official tally of the signatures. If the number of valid signatures remains above 15% of Fort Bragg's registered voters then the City must call for a special election on the initiative to ban social services from the central business district (CBD). However, if the date of that potential special election falls within 180 days of a regularly scheduled election the special election will be conjoined with the regular election. That appears to be the situation, so that the earliest a vote on this initiative could take place would be in the June, 2016 presidential primary election.
The initiative is a reaction to the City Council earlier in the year approving transitional housing units and office space for mental health assessments at the site of the Old Coast Hotel at the corner of Oak and Franklin Streets in Fort Bragg's CBD. Money for the purchase of the Old Coast Hotel was funded through a Community Development Block grant (CDBG). In September, the City of Fort Bragg's attorney, Samantha Zutler, stated that consistent with other provisions of the zoning code, if the initiative passes, the facility [Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center's new offices within the Old Coast Hotel] and other targeted social service organizations will become legal non-conforming uses, but the uses will not be prohibited.
The City Attorney went on: If Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center's right becomes vested before the measure takes effect, the retro-activity provision in the initiative would likely be subject to challenge as an improper interference with MCHC's vested right to operate the facility. The killer blow came in this Zutler legal opinion: Using a zoning ordinance to target a specific facility that exists to provide housing to low income persons, persons with disabilities, or persons receiving public benefits could be challenged as discriminatory and unlawful under state and federal laws.
That message was received loud and clear by all five council members in September, including Vice Mayor Lindy Peters, the lone vote against the Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center move to the Old Coast Hotel site. At that September 14th meeting each of the five councilmen spoke against the proposed initiative, citing two main reasons: 1) the potential high costs to the city in litigation, and 2) the measure could also deny central business district locations to other, unquestioned, social service organizations.
Potential litigation attaches to the initiative's main clause. “This initiative clarifies and amends Title 18, Chapter 18.22 of the Municipal Code (Commercial Zoning Districts) to not allow by permit or otherwise specific land uses in the CBD, as that District is shown and described by Title 18 as of January 1, 2015.”
At the October 26th City Council meeting Peters said that he had approached some of those behind the initiative petition and told them retroactive enforcement would not stand up to legal actions. The City Council and staff, on October 26th, also discussed the potential cost of the special election. Having the petition signatures counted by the Mendocino County Registrar this past summer did not cost the city because the petition fell short by a single valid signature of reaching the 10% minimum of registered Fort Bragg voters to qualify for the ballot. However, if anything close to the 22% number of signatures holds up this time (the County has until December 2nd to verify) then the City of Fort Bragg will be charged for the count. City Council and staff estimated added election costs at anywhere between $10,000 to $35,000.
Apparently, those who organized the petition drive for the initiative are still intent on going forward. I say “apparently” because only a single supporter of the initiative showed up for the October 26th City Council meeting, but even he left well before the council voted 5-0 to send the petition and its 659 signatures to the County Registrar.
All that's left is a mess, a civic ballot measure that not a single current city council member supports, unknown amounts of litigation costs if the initiative should pass, the side issue of privatized mental health care and services (as of this writing Ortner Management Group, the private providers of adult mental health services in Mendocino County is not yet a tenant at the Old Coast Hotel site, but its subcontractor, Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center, is the new owner of the Old Coast Hotel property, subject to CDBG guidelines), and the literal mess that accompanies the daily meals served at or outside the Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center's flagship entity, Hospitality House. No short or long range solution has been proposed by “Hospitality” or the city fathers for the continual trashing of the CBD by some of the homeless who are served daily at Hospitality House. “Hospitality's” management and board are still pretty much in denial about the problems caused by dozens of loiterers on the streets, alleyways, and parking lots nearby the Hospitality House prior to, during, and after meals are served late each afternoon. There is very little monitoring of the meals served, so food, plates and utensils often end up as messes to be cleaned up by neighbors for several blocks around Hospitality House on any given day.
I've seen the photos. Food, trash, and worse on the front and back steps of Hospitality House's neighbors. Homeless who are served food by Hospitality House, but for whatever reason are not allowed to spend the night there can be viewed in photos taken by neighbors; homeless persons curled up on the front steps or porches of businesses in the neighborhood of Hospitality House, sometimes curled up with their Hospitality House food and plates scattered across those same porches, steps, lawns. You can find the Hospitality House meals strewn anywhere from Purity to Safeway, McPherson [sic] Street to Main Street.
Providing services for mental health clients at the Old Coast Hotel property may bring minor problems from time to time, but the real problem, the simple monitoring of those fed at Hospitality House has been largely ignored for years. You can't change that with a petition to ban social services in the central business district.