WILLITS — Third District Supervisor Tom Woodhouse might have been knocked down, but he insists that he’s back on his feet and invigorated with new purpose, clarity, and focus. He has missed the last five consecutive board meetings, and was for a time not responding to calls or emails — sparking rampant speculation. Yet, in the last two weeks he’s been seen in public frequently, usually in quite high spirits.
In an extensive interview with The Mendocino Voice, Woodhouse described how his time away from the board has allowed him to refocus and gain greater clarity, and how it had prepared him to attack his duties as supervisor with a new determination. He outlined some main points that he wishes to push for in the second half of his term: a revamp of the county’s building and planning codes and office, a reform of the mental health system, a double digit raise for the county’s lowest paid employees (coupled with a freeze in the pay of the highest paid), and a general reform of county government driven by a wave of citizen support and activism.
Woodhouse last attended a Supervisors’ meeting on August 30. Since then there have been five meetings of the supervisors, of which he has attended none. It was announced at one meeting that he would be returning Nov. 3, but he seemed to contradict that date in the interview. On October 7 his family released a statement that explained, “Supervisor Woodhouse has a medical condition and is presently under a doctor’s care.” In the October 15 interview he did not elaborate on the nature of his condition.
Since the interview, he has attended a supervisorial committee meeting, as a member of the audience, at which he stated that he was likely to either recuse himself, or simply walk out, during future discussion of cannabis policy at board meetings. He also missed an additional Board of Supervisors’ session.
Woodhouse also said that he would be organizing a public forum to discuss the reform of planning and building services. The forum was to be held in the supervisors’ chambers, but would not have been an official meeting of the supervisors. He stated that he had booked the room, for Wednesday Oct. 26, which the county Executive Office confirmed. However, he did not show up on that day and it appeared that no one else did. The executive office was not given any notice of the cancellation, and had not heard from him. A text was sent to him at the time of the meeting, he did not respond. Emails and calls were made to seek clarification, but at the time of publication he had not responded.
Absence and Clarity
The interview happened on a rainy Sunday, Oct. 15, in Woodhouse’s cozy real estate office in Willits. Woodhouse contacted The Voice to offer the interview. Throughout he evinced a sense of commitment and excitement over his plans and policy ideas.
Concerning any rumors that have been floating around about his absence, Woodhouse said, “There were rumors during the campaign, there are rumors now, I don’t pay attention to them. I’m just trying to figure out what reality is, not what rumors are. I hear a rumor that people care about government and want to be involved.”
He went on to say that he hopes to see a spirit of participation from the public in a series of forums he wants to organize. He also said that he is not certain that he will run again, and indicated that that decision will depend on public support.
“I took time off to look at the picture of what I had and hadn’t accomplished, and how I was going to get to where I was going.” And he believes that he found a clarity that will shape the rest of his time.
He began the interview with a general description of his state of mind, and how it related to his absence, “I am not the normal kind of person that gets elected to public office. I’ve worked by myself created my own rules and chosen the kind of people I work with, and if they walk in the door and I don’t like their vibe I don’t work with them.”
Later on he elaborated, “I came with kind intentions and a hard work ethic, and usually that gets you through, but politically that has less value than in other arenas.”
He added that he can’t carry everyone’s problems, continuing, “It eventually takes a toll, so I had to reinvent myself to keep the kindness…I’ve learned to be more zen.”
Continuing, “So I had to relearn, at my age, to behave different, without losing the things that I value, and that takes a few weeks… But out of 44 meetings I went to 40, so if somebody wants to run against me bring it on.”
Mental health and the CEO
The fight to terminate the contract with the Ortner Management Group, which had a contract to provide the county’s adult mental health services, was an early indication of the difficulties the job would pose. He described county government as “…so dysfunctional, so slow to change,” and bemoaned the fact that it took 14 months to end Ortner’s contract.
He also stated that he had told Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo that Ortner was a problem, from the beginning, and that she had dismissed him, adding, “A month later she met with her top people and said: whoever is talking to Woodhouse stop it, right now. So I knew from the first 60 days what I was up against.”
He described the “joy” of getting rid of Ortner, but characterized it as somewhat illusory, “…we turned the direction and now we’re doing better, but it doesn’t erase all the negative millions of dollars…” He characterized Ortner’s actions as a “robbery,” with money spent years into the future.
In terms of dealing with the current question of mental health facilities Woodhouse advocates for the immediate creation of a PHF unit (a psychiatric health facility, pronounced “puff”).
“It’s meant to be a gentle place, where you take a breather. It’s not like getting slammed into an institution for a month and being stripped of everything. It’s a time out for one or two or three days…”
He also stressed his belief in the importance of passing Measure AG. “If you or your family or your neighbor needed it, you’re all in on mental health on that day, but when it comes to voting you’re not willing to pay 10 bucks a month — it doesn’t make sense. Communities agree to tax themselves for fire protection, street improvements, where they get a benefit, the towns that do this have a better quality of life.”
Another source of frustration was his tenure on the Marijuana Ad Hoc Committee, in dealing with what he called the “selfish needs of every grower, wanting to have their prime life be intact” and balancing that with the “average person who didn’t want to have marijuana odor destroying their quality of life.”
He thinks that marijuana regulation will be chaotic after the election, and marred by constant lawsuits, but is not fazed by this, believing that a collapse in the price of marijuana would be for the county: “I hope it does [collapse]. I’ve always said that, I think it’ll be an improvement for our area. When it’s not an option, then you’re going to have to study, work hard, show up for interviews, be drug free, or you won’t get the job. I think that’s healthy. We’ve been lazy and we’re paying a helluva penalty for that. And we act like there’s no cost. But it’s a huge cost.”
He believes that the work done by the ad hoc committee, and especially its collaboration with neighboring counties, “led the way.” But he was frustrated by its disbanding, saying, “then we were unceremoniously removed from it. And I said ‘well, thanks a lot for the lack of courtesy in the way you didn’t thank me for this sacrifice.’ But we did an excellent job.”
Planning and Building Forum
It’s likely that Woodhouse’s most audacious goals lay in his plan to attempt a reform not only of Mendocino County Planning and Building Services, but of the building code as well. The gist of his plan calls for a rousing public discourse to be had at one or more public forums. His initial forum had been scheduled for the 26, but did not happen.
He explained with some passion, “This is the new approach to dealing with democracy — it’s participation — it’s not just sending me to Ukiah to save your world.” Continuing, “It’s a new style of government. It’s not: come to our meeting and do it the way we’ve always done it. It’s: come to your meeting and let’s show you a new way for citizens to drive what they want home. And it’s a powerful new thing that can’t be stopped, because it’s the power of numbers.”
Specifically he believes the building code has become onerous, that it is so difficult to satisfy, that many homeowners and builders forego inspection altogether, resulting in structures that fail to meet even basic code. He wants to create some kind of flexibility in the code. He also wants to pump some of the reserve money the county has into hiring new code inspectors at a higher salary. He noted that the county currently holds $12 million in reserve.
In this discussion Woodhouse repeatedly reiterated his commitment and enthusiasm, saying that this new style of democracy he hopes to enact, would become the model for achieving his other goals.
According to Woodhouse the county’s salary negotiations with the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) will take place in December or January. Woodhouse proposes giving the lowest paid county workers a 15%-18% raise this year, which he said will be paid for by giving much smaller raises to the people at the top of the pay schedule, or freezing their pay altogether. And he believes that long-term pay raises would save money by eliminating inefficiency.
He stated that of the 877 county workers who belong to the union, about 100 make less than $15/hour, “They’re the working poor…they’re barely getting by.” This, he pointed out, could become a big problem as the state’s minimum wage is set to rise to $15/hour by 2022.
He said the highest paid workers make $60,000, base pay, and the lowest about $24,000, “If somebody’s working they have to be able to buy tires, buy food, get insurance and get to work…These are the last of the working poor who are oppressed.” He asked how the county was any different from “Walmart that doesn’t pay medical and a proper living wage.”
Woodhouse sang the praises of the workers, calling them generous, optimistic, and hardworking, adding, “I’m willing to burn all my political credibly to get them that money for the next two years. But it’s going to be a revolution. I don’t think it’s been done before in government.” He also said that he would speak for the people who “have no voice.”
“If people…can’t live, that affects all of us, and we have to all sacrifice to make it better for them. It’s not communism, you’re not giving money to people for nothing. You’re giving money to people who are willing to work for it.” Continuing, “I’m not a communist. I want people to work, but if people are willing to work then we have to partner and make it worth their time.”
And he threw down the gauntlet to the higher paid employees: “I challenge them to stand up in public and say ‘I need that money more than he needs that money.’”
Asked if this plan might violate state rules for employee negotiation Woodhouse responded, that he would willingly have Mendocino be a test case, and fight the issue in the courts, said Woodhouse, “I don’t give a shit if it’s against the law.”
He’d welcome the fight for a groundbreaking case, because the lowest paid workers are, “working the hardest and getting the least.”
Budget and General Reform
On the subject of general reform his basic message is clear: “Improve or leave,” and, “We need to respond as if our pay is based on our performance.” He said he believes this should apply to his fellow supervisors as well as other top ranking members of the county government, saying that rather than plan for the long term, county decision-makers lurch from emergency to emergency.
Key to this reform would be raising the pay of supervisors, which he said is too low, though he added that any pay raise should not be instituted until after he leaves the board.Currently supervisors are paid $111,774 in salary and benefits, with a base pay of $62,000, plus about $50,000 in benefits, including health insurance, life insurance and some money to pay for transportation.
Woodhouse does not believe that this level of pay is sufficient to draw bright and motivated people, “Having the pay at that amount doesn’t attract the brains that we need.”He then claimed that, aside from himself, “the last four people that ran, nobody ran against em.” He explained that this constant victory by incumbents prevents accountability, and argued that the pay was part of the reason for a lack of challengers.
Expanding this critique to the wages of planners and other important county employees, he urged pay increases to stay competitive with neighboring counties, and lamented the talented employees who have left to work in Sonoma.
As to the cost of these raises, and the various other programs and reforms that he wishes to implement, “People are saying, ‘I don’t want to pay taxes, I pay too much.’ Well, how low are you willing to let the quality of your life go before you will pay taxes?”
Adrian Fernandez Baumann, Oct. 28, 2016