Ideal fit or ‘fiasco’? Despite criticism, Land Trust stands by its hiring of Conklin
This is the second of The Union’s two-part, in-depth look at former County Supervisor Bruce Conklin’s role in the North Star House restoration, which he helped finance as a politician and later was paid to oversee. Tuesday’s story outlined the history of the restoration money. Today’s piece looks at the selection of Conklin as project manager.
Ex-county supervisors don’t quite have the clout to launch a speaking tour, ghost write a book, or broker peace in the Middle East. So after being ousted by Drew Bedwell in 2002, former Supervisor Bruce Conklin considered taking up “casual” house painting.
But it just wasn’t his passion, he said.
So in early 2003, he threw himself into renovating his own Grass Valley home, continuing a leisurely search for work. He focused his hunt in neighboring counties after being told at a job interview with the county’s Human Services Agency he “would not ever be able to work for a public agency in Nevada County,” Conklin said, “and that seemed appropriate.”
“I assumed I would not work in Nevada County,” Conklin said.
He was wrong. He would soon be selected for a job he was largely responsible for creating in his last weeks as a member of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors.
Now, as Conklin campaigns to return to his old supervisor seat, the Nevada County Land Trust finds itself defending the decision to hire him – while facing a county audit of the whole arrangement.
Picked for the post
While Conklin was unemployed in January 2003, the Nevada County Land Trust had plenty of work on its hands.
Just a few weeks earlier, the nonprofit’s Board of Directors had agreed to take on the historic but ailing North Star House after debating the decision at length and losing at least one board member in protest.
Now, an organization – which dealt primarily in farm and open space preservation and trails projects – had to restore a dilapidated architectural treasure and obtain parkland in Loma Rica Ranch.
Needless to say, the Land Trust needed help.
So Executive Director Cheryl Belcher set to work on Jan. 3, 2003. She drafted a job description for a project manager, who would kick off efforts at the house and Loma Rica Ranch, in accordance with the Land Trust’s contract with the county.
It was a contract spearheaded by Conklin in the last weeks of 2002, shifting the bulk of a donation by Auburn resident Dryden Wilson to the Land Trust. The supervisors gave $508,000 to the Land Trust for the revival of the North Star House and Loma Rica Ranch.
An advertisement was published in The Union beginning Feb. 3, Land Trust Treasurer Ron Mathis said. Out of 38 requests for proposals sent out, 14 were returned by the Feb. 21 deadline.
To whittle the candidates down, Mathis drafted a list of 14 criteria to judge the candidates.
Most importantly, according to his weighting of criteria, the successful applicant had to:
• Adhere to the nonpolitical, nonadversarial philosophy of the Nevada County Land Trust.
• Demonstrate understanding of the role of the project manager in overseeing the budget, schedule and objectives for this program.
Using these criteria, members of the Land Trust’s selection committee – Mathis, Belcher, Ted Beedy, Greg Fenner, John Taylor and Geri Bergen – picked four to interview: Conklin, Nevada City Planning Commissioner Laurie Oberholzer, and two other finalists whose names have not been released by Land Trust officials.
Oberholzer declined to comment for this story.
The four finalists, including Conklin, interviewed before the Land Trust’s Executive Committee, which included Mathis, current President Andy Cassano, Bergen, and Ken Krugler. Cassano recused himself from the vote because of professional affiliations with the North Star House project, he said.
The three board members rated the candidates, and when their ratings were compiled, Conklin came out on top, Mathis said.
The apolitical politician?
“When (the Land Trust) job came along, (my wife and I) both said, ‘Wow, this is a perfect job.’ (It requires) all of the skills I want to be using, plus it’s something I care about,” Conklin said. “There wasn’t any conflict.”
Land Trust leaders didn’t see a conflict, either.
Conklin was the best candidate because of his community contacts, personality, vision of the job, working relationship with North Star and Loma Rica land owners, and his historical knowledge of the building, according to Land Trust board members who held a news conference Tuesday.
And Conklin easily met their requirement to remain nonpolitical and nonadversarial, Land Trust leaders said.
During the selection process, the board members “put blinders on” to neutralize Conklin’s political affiliations, Mathis said.
“(We said) we’re not going to be political. We’re going to deal with him as an objective straightforward applicant,” Mathis said.
Conklin was confident in his ability to remain apolitical – “I think it’s my strong point,” he told The Union on Tuesday.
Not everyone agreed.
“From my vantage point, (Bruce’s hiring) was a total fiasco,” said former Supervisor Drew Bedwell, who edged out Conklin in the 2002 election.
Political foes weren’t Conklin’s only critics.
Land Trust Board Member John Taylor, who quit the board in protest, had already cautioned his colleagues to stay away from the North Star House because “it could become a political thing … which in this county is not hard to do.”
And prospective Land Trust board member Bruce Ivy spoke out against accepting the Dryden Wilson bequest and hiring Bruce Conklin, expressing his displeasure in several letters to the organization’s board.
Ivy, who describes himself as a “staunch environmentalist” and ardent supporter of the Land Trust, said he was “very upset Bruce Conklin was selfishly helping himself and hurting the Land Trust. … One of our beefs is that the (Dryden Wilson) money was not for home restoration. The money was for recreation.”
But Taylor and Ivy were in the minority at the Land Trust.
Conklin excelled at nonpolitical project management, Belcher said.
“During his term as our project manager he didn’t engage in any political activities,” she said.
In retrospect, however, Cassano wrote in a guest column in The Union that the Land Trust “was guilty of serious naiveté in choosing Conklin. … We were quite simply unable to foresee how much controversy his selection could cause in the long run.”
Once on the job in March 2003, Conklin began working on the North Star House project.
Although he was also hired to develop a park on Loma Rica Ranch property near Grass Valley, it quickly became apparent Loma Rica’s owner was not far enough along in the property’s development to collaborate with the Land Trust.
The Land Trust used $13,000 of the Dryden Wilson bequest to network with Carville Sierra, although the Loma Rica development company received none of the money, Phil Carville said.
So Conklin’s first priority was getting control of the North Star House, which developer Sandy Sanderson officially acquired in April 2003 and planned to hand over to the Land Trust.
The Land Trust’s original intent was to mothball the building, cover the roof in plastic and prevent further damage to the house until money could be raised for a historical analysis, Mathis said.
But an architectural study of the building early in 2003 revealed the house had larger structural problems than previously thought.
Friend hired, gets $182,001
Fearing the roof wouldn’t weather another winter, the Land Trust began a search for a roofer in June 2003, Mathis said.
It posted a request for proposals at Hills Flat Lumber Company and possibly in The Union, according to Belcher and Mathis.
Contractors were asked to submit a bid that included the type of material they would use on the roof, Mathis said.
Answering the call was Lawrence Black, a contractor and longtime friend of Conklin’s. The two first became acquainted more than 20 years ago at a Quaker service in the Bay Area, Conklin said. The first night Conklin spent in Nevada County in the early 1980s, he camped on Black’s property, he said.
Black submitted two bids for the roof work overseen by his friend – one proposed using asphalt shingles and the other suggested concrete tiles.
Although most contractors offered to install asphalt shingles, Land Trust leaders decided that concrete tiles were the best match for the home’s original shake shingles, Mathis said.
The lowest bid for concrete tiles came from Black, so he got the job, Mathis said.
An independent third party scrutinized the bids, which were numbered and evaluated blindly, Mathis said.
“Bruce didn’t see (the applications),” Belcher said.
When Black was announced as the winning bidder by the Land Trust’s North Star House committee, Conklin told the committee members he and Black were friends, Belcher said.
But this friendship was not seen as a reason to derail Black’s hiring, Land Trust leaders said.
“(The allegation is) that Conklin hires old pal. On the surface, that’s true. But the implication that there’s some kind of a sweetheart deal made couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said David Wright, a member of the Land Trust’s North Star House committee.
Hiring a contractor without personal connections to Conklin or the Land Trust leaders was almost an impossible task, organizers said.
“It’s a small town; we know most of the contractors,” Mathis said.
“If you observe the correct procedure, and it is all above board, how can this be a problem?” Belcher asked.
Black was later retained for other, smaller projects, as well. In total, he was paid $182,001 for his work and materials.
Before he transferred the house to the Land Trust, Sanderson insisted that the nonprofit evict three families squatting on the property and install a new caretaker.
The house and property had been trashed by vandals and addicts, masonry had been smashed away, and crude graffiti covered the redwood panels.
“We had to change the culture on the ground,” Conklin said.
He worked for weeks to remove the tenants, but arrived to the property each day unsure whether they would still be around.
When the last squatter finally left in December, Conklin said he didn’t want to leave the property unguarded even for a single night.
“I was even considering going out there and sleeping there myself,” Conklin said.
But, when speaking with his brother-in-law Jim Longnecker, who had just sold his house in the Bay Area, Conklin came up with an idea. If Longnecker would stay on the property for just a few days, Conklin would have time to broker a permanent arrangement with the Land Trust board.
Longnecker agreed and moved into the shoddy gardener’s cottage, a tattered structure with a rotted foundation, frayed wiring and leaky plumbing.
“I think Jim should have been given a medal for being willing to live there,” Belcher said.
Longnecker excelled at his job, restoration organizers said. At 6-foot-3-inches, he was an effective deterrent of vandalism, Conklin said.
Longnecker even confronted Sanderson when he once arrived unannounced, pleasing the protective property owner, Conklin said.
So Longnecker stayed on, saving the Land Trust the $29,000 it had originally budgeted for the position, Mathis said. But the arrangement also provided free lodging to a relative of Conklin.
The arrangement was not unethical “because (Longnecker) wasn’t getting paid and there was nobody else who would have put up with that,” Conklin said.
A hopeful horizon
The Land Trust is shifting gears on the North Star House, Belcher said.
It is close to hiring an architect to develop a complete restoration plan and has seriously begun fund raising – recently acquiring $5,000 to incorporate art into the house and print T-shirts, Belcher said.
Tuesdays and Saturdays, volunteers continue to work on the building, scouring graffiti off the walls and pulling down plywood, heartfelt efforts Belcher attributes to Conklin.
“Bruce was able to bring together a group of volunteers that would give of their time and their talent. It’s just amazing the amount of people he got involved in this,” Belcher said.
Land Trust leaders are proud of their efforts to restore the house and create a conference center partially open to the public. It is a cause they feel is worthy of the generous gift by Dryden Wilson, even though it was asked by Wilson’s attorney that the money be used for open space preservation.
“You go out there, you know the building is going to live,” said Cassano, Land Trust board president. “(We’re) not sure about the money, not sure about the details, but you know it’s going to be there.”
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