Hue and Cry Fee

Hue and cry
Participatory democracy is grueling work
Observer report and opinion from the Prospect

Yesterday’s Sierra County Board of Supervisors meeting was greatly consumed with the Sierra County Fire District One’s "developer fee." The fee would raise the cost of most buildings by $3.56 a square foot. A brief report is this: the supervisors heard from citizens on the already approved developer fee ordinance and moved to hold more public hearings before the ordinance is completely implemented.

The real story is hugely more important, as local people worked together to make democracy a reality for us.


Many of the attendees of the Board of Supervisors meeting came over the pass. The drive was snowy and trucks and graders worked on the road, but the snow tapered at Sierra City. It was raining in Downieville, and cold. There was a modest crowd; about half the seats were filled a few minutes into the meeting.


The Fire Commissioners are empowered under the Bergeson Fire District Act to make certain decisions about emergency services (in some places this includes hazardous materials and emergency medical care). Typically, a commission would meet, come to a conclusion, and in key decisions where county ordinance is required, it goes to the Board of Supervisors, who consider it (and generally just approve it) and follow the process to create new local law.

Key to that process is public comment. Typically there are complaints when taxes and fees are raised, so boards and commissions come to expect a certain amount of complaint, and do what they are going to do anyway.

In this instance, with the intention of providing for service to developing areas of the county, the Commission worked for a year to arrive at a plan to provide funding under the "mitigation fee act." One tripping point is that Fire District One is a huge part of the county, and covers a lot of people already here, and a lot of ag and industrial land. Perhaps, if the Commission would have chosen to separate out Verdi and the "Truckee" side of the county, there would have been a little less complaint.

When the Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance there was complaint, a lot of time was spent and frustration vented, but they dropped the hammer on it and the ordinance began to creep toward implementation.

Most of the opponents simply groused; one person, Bill Bate of Calpine didn’t give up, but did some investigating. He approached the Board of Supervisors two weeks ago with some points in the process the Commission had followed. He read the Commission’s by-laws, which require a public hearing on such matters. Public law in general puts a great deal of importance on public input, especially where taxes, though not so much fees, are raised. There were other weak points in the Commission’s work (see article here).


At the Board meeting this Tuesday, March 3, the issue was raised again, through an agenda item with a memorandum with an opinion from County Counsel Jim Curtis. That opportunity blossomed into the kind of discussion that heats up the room.

It is the opinion of the Prospect that our little county is one of the few places where this kind of town hall democracy can still be practiced. In larger counties, the whole issue would have taken three minutes, and if somebody wanted to sue, let ‘em. It was the determination of the Board of Supervisors that the residents of the county need to approve of the way County business is conducted that allowed this public discussion to take place.


The Fire Commissioners were represented by Bill Copren, a seasoned heavy weight in these kinds of issues. Mr. Copren’s arguments were summed up quickly: the Commission followed the law, the Board of Supervisors followed the law, the Commission worked for a year to formulate this thing, it’s less than most counties charge, there were public meetings which nobody cared to come to, what’s done is done. Anyone who disagrees is a "special interest."

The loosely associated people who spoke against the fee included Milt Holstrum and Txxx XXXxxx, who do have contractor and development interests, and Laurenc DeVita, your reporter, who is considering building a house in District One. However, it was Bill Bate who again insisted the Commission hadn’t followed proper procedure for the fee, and who patiently, doggedly, answered blow for blow.

This mixture is spiced by the non-presence of a Mr. Abbott, who is supposed to be an expert in these matters. The Fire Commission has asked Mr. Abbott to check their work. They’ve also formed a citizen advisory council, to do something. But, what?


Bill Nunes, as Board Chair, was a skillful referee, making sure there were no hits below the belt and no hugging in the ring, but he and the Board of Supervisors were less audience than the anxious object of the discussion. If it was easy, and all the Board had to do is say, "well, let’s hold on a bit on this thing and let everyone have their say," they would have done that. But this is legislation, the creation of law. It is done with great pomp, and the muttering of lawyers. In this instance, the lawyer was County Council Jim Curtis, who, whenever it seemed a resolution was near, would interject enough "explanation" to send everyone back to the podium.

The legal snarls include the fact that the Commission created the thing, but the Board made law out of it. If the Board did everything right, but the Commission didn’t, then the Board approved into law something that wasn’t legal to begin with. Is it legal anyway?

The political snarls are a problem of their own. Supervisor Lee Adams made it very clear, he believes the Commission and Board followed the law, he supports the fee, but there is a crisis of public trust. "The perception becomes the reality," he said.

The perception is that the Commission enacted this fee in the dark, without public input.

Bill Copren was clear, and everyone who is on a local commission or board knows he’s right: nobody came! They had meetings, they posted it in the Calpine and Sierraville Post Offices; nobody came.

Lack of public participation is always a problem for boards, commissions and councils. People only come to complain about single issues, and they usually don’t know the issue well enough to change anything.

It was the point of Bill Bate, and myself, that the public is busy, they didn’t know. Most people are too busy taking care of life to pay attention to these little boards. People volunteer, they’re our neighbors and good folks, and they’ll do their best.

This issue is too big for that, its unintended consequences too great. People didn’t show up because they didn’t know; now they know, give them a hearing.

Further Mr. Bate has pretty convincingly demonstrated that the noticing wasn’t really sufficient, that perhaps the Commission didn’t really want public input.

Bill Copren did a lot to demonstrate a reluctance for public input. He was dead set against the bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo to rescind the ordinance, only to eventually re-instate it. "We didn’t need to notice it, we tried to include the public and we didn’t have to." He also pointed out that if Mr. Abbott or the Citizens Advisory group came up with something, the Fire District would give people’s money back. Though he asserted several times that the Fire District would give money back, no one seemed impressed and some were openly dubious. Government in general hasn’t been real trustworthy with money lately; maybe that’s it.

Outside the Board Chamber windows, large flakes had started to fall.

Mr. Copren also made something else clear: he isn’t going to do this work over again. A year is enough, if people don’t like what he did, good luck. It was a bitter statement; many of us do appreciate the work he did, and won’t be completely surprised if, in truth and in law, there is no better solution. Still, few people blamed him for the sentiment.

The Board had entertained discussion just to the point where it became repetitive. They’d attempted a couple of mediating steps, but Mr. Curtis had pointed out the "damned if you do" clause, as cited in the "damned if you don’t" clause. Supervisor Goicoechea sympathized with unhappy folks, but wanted to get back to Board business, and felt the "Mr. Abbott" and "citizen’s committee" steps were enough. Lee Adams repeated his support for the Commission and the fairness of the fee, he didn’t want to "subsidize" new people, but was insistent that the public get a chance to be heard. He felt once the public understood, they would be on board.

It was then that he used a phrase that has been key to the emotional and political meat of this issue: "When they find out who will be paying…" In the end, it is how you imagine this "who" that can make your mind up on the fire fee.

Supervisor Adams, in his soft, restrained voice, made it clear that he hasn’t heard nearly enough "hue and cry" to change his mind, but he wanted to give people a chance. The blabber mouthed editor of Sierra County Prospect took to the podium and promised Supervisor Adams some "hue and cry" and, calmly Lee Adams answered, let’s see it. So far, it’s made a good headline, but that’s all.

The windows of the chamber showed a white world, and a cold wet snow was thickly layering everything but the river. During a brief pause in speech one heard a snowplow growling on 49.


Finally, it was the patient insistence on public input by Supervisor Adams, ("My greatest concern is that we live up to our own standards") and the fervent desire to work on something else by Supervisor Goicoechea ("Look at it snow"), and the fact that Chairperson Nunes concluded there was nothing more to be said that caused the Board to act. They instructed County Council Curtis to work out a way to hold the ordinance up. Mr. Curtis consulted the dark books in his laptop, burned a bit of sulfur, and determined that he could, indeed put the worm back in the hole by creating an ordinance within an ordinance, one ordinance with two parts, the first would cancel the previous developer fee ordinance, and the second would allow a mirror of the first fee ordinance, a clone, to be enacted after sixty days, if the Board wished.

The Board voted, approved the move, and with great relief, moved on.

After the meeting I spoke with Mr. Bill Bate. He felt the Board had taken the right steps, and felt that public participation would benefit the fire district. Mr. Bate was clear, he supported the fire district and wanted to work toward a more equitable solution. It was also important, he said, that people get heard when the government does something like this. Procedures are in place, they need to be followed.

As a critic of the modern world, I have to say that my faith in democracy was freshened a bit, to see so many sincere people working so hard. To someone from another culture, it might have looked like a fight, but to me, it was a cooperative contest to try to determine the public good.

A hue and cry is needed. Please read my weekly editorial, HERE.

PEOPLE DO CARE what their local government is doing. For an interesting example of another community going through a similar process on a different subject, see HERE.

NOTE: A "hue and cry" refers to a 1285 law in England which required people to shout and ring bells when a criminal is discovered, and all able bodied men to respond to apprehend the culprit. A good term for a retired sheriff to use!



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