Deal smellier than a dead skunk
Maybe we’ve become so used to political prostitution that a little more here and there no longer matters.
I mean, maybe it was right for Bruce Conklin to take care of Bruce Conklin and his longtime friend. After all … if he doesn’t, who will?
And here I thought he was just being arrogant when he orchestrated a last-minute deal with a member of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors. A deal that eventually earned him and his pal some pocket money.
For those of you still in denial, or perhaps wondering what’s so wrong about a guy taking care of himself and his friends with your money, let’s refresh.
In November 2002, voters decided to change the makeup of the five-member Board of Supervisors, kicking Conklin and Izzy Martin off the board and replacing them with Drew Bedwell and Robin Sutherland.
Unfortunately for voters, there’s enough time between Election Day and the actual day when the newly elected officials are sworn in to allow the lame ducks to put some finishing touches on a few unfinished things. Generally, it’s things the newcomers won’t like, which is a great reason to change the system so that the losers have to leave office immediately, escorted out by security guys so they don’t steal any paper clips.
Anyway … one of Conklin’s unfinished things was the North Star House, which was designed by Julia Morgan of Hearst Castle fame. A longtime Auburn family had donated a ton of money to the county and Conklin wanted to spend some of it to restore the old mining house.
But Conklin had a few problems. The first was time. In less than a month he’d be out of a job, and he had a sneaking suspicion that the new board might want to spend the money on other things.
Unfortunately, the board had already canceled the scheduled Christmas Eve meeting, probably recognizing that it was … you know … Christmas Eve.
But with more than a half-million dollars just sitting there waiting to be had, the Christmas tree could wait a few more hours, so the lame duck board decided to go for it. Christmas comes every year, but a half-million dollars only comes around once every four years or so, if you’re lucky.
At its Dec. 3 meeting, Conklin and Izzy’s board decided to change its mind and have its last board meeting on Dec. 24, knowing that Supervisor Sue Horne wouldn’t be able to make it. Horne spent Christmas Eve with her family, if you can imagine that.
That didn’t stop Izzy, Conklin, Barbara Green or Peter Van Zant from having a good time. Horne just got in the way anyway, and they were probably happy they didn’t have to share their Christmas Eve with her, the political party pooper.
By a unanimous vote (with Conklin and Izzy leading the charge), the board gave $508,000 and change to the Land Trust, with directions to use the money to fix up the old house and to go out and hire someone to manage the project. Conklin’s proposal even laid out some of the manager’s duties.
Just a few weeks later, we learned that Conklin had gotten the job as the “best qualified” candidate among 14 or so applicants.
Shocker, eh? Who would have thought that the Land Trust was looking for a psychologist/tree planter/ousted county supervisor to manage a half-million dollar historical preservation construction grant? I must have missed the advertisement: “HELP WANTED: If you’ve studied Pavlov’s dogs, know an oak tree from a rose bush and lost by fewer than 20 votes in an election, we need you to oversee a reconstruction project. … “
At the time, we thought it stank and we said as much in an editorial. But Conklin didn’t think he’d have to face the voters for at least another few years, if then, and kind of gave us the old “Neener, neener, neener” thing that you do with your thumb and nose when you don’t care what anyone thinks.
In fact, he was so arrogant about it that he reportedly contracted with a buddy to put a new roof on the North Star House, costing more than $180,000 out of the grant money. What are friends for? Conklin says he and local contractor Lawrence Black (Black’s Carpentry) are longtime friends and that he was the best candidate among the half-dozen or so other qualified bidders.
The Nevada County Contractors Association, however, was unaware of any such bid. There is also a question as to whether Black even has a “C-39” contractors license that is generally required of roofers. Conklin said he’s known Black for years and met him at a Bay Area Quakers meeting. Conklin said he stayed with Black when he first moved to town.
Most of the Land Trust folks were “shocked and outraged” that anyone in their right mind would even question the hiring of Conklin to oversee a project that he helped negotiate financing for from county coffers. They’re probably going to say the same thing when questioned about the “bidding process” on the roof.
“That’s an outrage!” they shouted. “We resemble that remark!”
You’ve got to wonder why an organization with such smart people would make such a dumb decision. Certainly they must have known that it wouldn’t smell very good to even the casual sniffer. They should have gone out of their way to find someone else, just for the sake of their own credibility. At least one trust member spoke out and was roundly criticized for doing so by the board president. Now we learn that one of Conklin’s campaign contributors is Land Trust Executive Director Cheryl Belcher! This thing just gets cozier by the minute.
And while we still thought it stank worse than a dead skunk on Pleasant Valley Road, we let it go because most people were really getting into “American Idol” at the time and didn’t really care too much about Conklin or the North Star House.
Then Bedwell found out he had cancer and had to leave the board two years early, much to the delight of many Conklin supporters, who never liked Bedwell anyway and said so in several nasty letters to the editor.
So Conklin found himself back on the campaign trail and having a really great time until we had to drag out that old business of the $508,000 Christmas Eve present and subsequent paychecks for Conklin and his friend.
“Smear Tactic!” read the cardboard sign on the protester’s stick last Friday in our parking lot. And, for the record, I was at the Giants/Dodgers game Friday with my own sign that read: “PITCH TO BARRY” and missed all the fun.
“You … you … meanies!” shouted other Conklin supporters on the phones.
Conklin, meanwhile, is standing firm in his belief that he did nothing that any other politician might have done, given half the chance.
“The Union says my work for the Land Trust presents at least an appearance of conflict of interest,” wrote Conklin in Monday’s rebuttal. “Yet it is The Union that has the power to create these appearances.”
Memo to Conklin: The appearance of conflict is only odorless to those who have their bumper stickers stuck so far up their noses that they can’t smell the stink.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesday.
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