Supervisors bicker over blight as cleanup project is completed

A discussion about county-owned property near Walmart grew into a heated argument between supervisors Tuesday over Del Norte blight that even invoked the name of Oprah Winfrey.

After refusing to spend $2,100 to put up "no trespassing" signs on the 3.5-acre parcel two weeks ago, supervisors agreed to the signs when Supervisor Roger Gitlin informed them that $200 from the Del Norte Sheriffs Employees Association and other anonymous donations will cover the cost. He said the donations have paid for 50 metal signs at a cost of $452.

Gitlin's Take A Bite Out of Blight program helped clean up the property last week, which had been littered with trash, makeshift shelters, empty alcohol bottles and used syringes. Cleanup volunteers included Boy Scout Troop 1077 and Our Daily Bread Ministries.

Before the vote, supervisors David Finigan and Michael Sullivan admonished Code Enforcement Officer Dave Mason and Heidi Kunstal, deputy director of building and planning for circumventing the Board of Supervisors in addressing the property.

"Last time we talked you had 163 projects," Sullivan told Mason, referring to a list of blighted properties that have been placed on a priority list. "Your pool of money to clean up blighted properties is $16,000. Twenty-one hundred, it's a chunk for an important project, but it's not No. 1 on the list. It's not even No. 5 or No. 10."

Finigan said there is a process and a protocol to be followed when government dollars are spent to clean up blighted properties. This includes going through a request for proposals to identify who is going to haul the debris, he said.

"What's the process and protocol you use to expend monies, because as I recall every time you've done that, you come before the Board and get authorization to take it to the next step," Finigan said. "And seeing as how we're the property owner, wouldn't we be consulted first? Much the same that you would do if somebody else had a blighted property?"

County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina confirmed that in the case of a blighted county-owned property, the staff should go before the Board of Supervisors for direction on how to proceed.

Gitlin, who viewed the property with sheriff's Commander Tim Athey in April, came to Mason and Kunstal's defense.

"We're trying to clean up this place," Gitlin said to Sullivan. "You can disagree with it all you want, I'm not going to let you excoriate two exemplary employees from doing what I consider a superb job. You will not scold them in my presence sir, I won't allow it."

Sullivan responded to Gitlin, saying "I would encourage you in the future, if you have projects, to bring it to the Board as a whole, not individually go out on your own and do it unless it's private properties. And how dare you accuse this Board of not addressing blight? That's all we've been doing for the last seven or eight-plus years. I commend you on the work you've done, but don't take shots at the Board in the process without the facts."

Supervisor Martha McClure said she and Finigan were on the Board when it adopted an ordinance to address blight and hired a blight officer. At that time, supervisors wrestled with the issue of how to go about cleaning up the community while respecting private property rights, she said.

Gitlin encouraged the other supervisors to take a look around the community, adding that he sees shopping carts in the street and fouled-up lots.

"When we see something that is wrong we're going to address it," Gitlin said of his Take a Blight Out of Blight program. "Oprah Winfrey 18 years ago came here and she said, 'Get me out of this dirty place.' She's on record of saying that. We're going to invite her back in two years (to) have a look-see."

Mason said he is new to how the process works for addressing blighted public property, but that he's "crystal clear" on the protocol for private property. He brought the condition of the property to the Board's attention last month, saying the debris is a byproduct of criminal activity that goes on there.

Volunteers spent two weekends clearing more than three tons of debris from the property, Gitlin said. County Code Enforcement had allocated $1,100 from its budget to pay for disposal costs, and Walmart donated $400 toward the cleanup. But the disposal costs wound up being less than $215, Gitlin said.

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