Tony Reed
Del Norte Triplicate

Controversy continued at public meetings this week, surrounding comments made on social media concerning the appropriateness of sending delegates to Rikuzentakata Japan using city and county travel money.

Crescent City Council recently voted 4-0 — Councilor Jason Greenough absent — to spend $12,000 for travel to Rikuzentakata for disaster readiness and response training, as well as to take part in their ceremony to sign the sister city agreement.

At that May 7 meeting, resident Linda Sutter criticized the decision, saying officials should pay for the trip themselves.

At city council meeting Monday, Sutter said the city used grant funding for lodging Rikuzentakata guests, and for the sister city signing ceremony in April. Sutter said the expenditure was “using money that was not intended for these types of expenses.”

City officials said the grant for $2,500 came from Building Healthy Communities and was allocated specifically for the ceremony.

Lodging and local travel costs for the Japanese guests were covered by businesses and community members, according to City Manager Eric Wier.

Sutter, continued, noting Del Norte County plans to send four delegates to Rikuzentakata, using its travel budget and the Crescent City Harbor District is sending Harbormaster Charlie Helms.

Sutter suggested delegates pay for the trip themselves and claim the costs for a personal income tax exemption later.

“And you can get that money back if you’re so passionate about it, instead of utilizing the taxpayer’s dime,” Sutter said, suggesting the cities share information via teleconferencing or other means.

Hanna Hoener, who was a self-funded delegate on the most recent trip to Rikuzentakata, said the sister city effort has been worthwhile.

“I think the fact that people have been so hateful and angry about it is a miscommunication,” she said. “I think we should come together as a community and not misuse funds. However, we should be a part of this program, we should be a part of this relationship, and it pains me and makes me very sad that people are so hateful.”

Eileen Cooper said two delegates should suffice when it comes to gathering information about emergency preparedness.

“I just question how much is going to be gleaned from this whole entourage going there,” Cooper said.

Peter Craig said he supports the council in its support of the sister city relationship.

“It’s an important commitment we’ve made in the past and the future relies on a relationship that takes more than a Skype,” Craig said. “It takes that time and relationships are very important to, not only the project, but I am sure that they will bear fruit in saving lives. The controversy really is about people who are uneducated about the 31 tsunamis that have hit Crescent City in the last 100 years. I would be happy to have you spend my tax dollars on the relationship and the trip and future trips, as well.”

Kylan Hoener also supported the trip, saying while he and others paid their own way to Rikuzentakata, they also hosted the visiting delegation in April at Trees of Mystery and the Forest Cafe.

Hoener said benefits of the sister city relationship were educational but also economic. He said Rikuzentakata’s tomato and strawberry agriculture thrives at nearly the same latitude and in the same conditions as Crescent City.

“We have a lot to learn in possibly oyster farming and produce,” Hoener said. “If anyone here wants to sell their wares, we now have a connection to Japan. We can sell our wares there or set up those relationships.

“It’s really unimaginative,” Hoener said, “to say this isn’t worth it or that it’s not going to be worth it economically, socially, educationally... our children going over there is invaluable in terms of expanding their minds and exposing them to the world and to a major economic superpower. There are not a lot of communities in the whole of the United States that have this opportunity.”

Brad Kime said he sees many benefits to the sister city relationship, and as president of the local Rotary Club, hopes to someday have an exchange of kids. He said while he supports the effort, he asked that the city be mindful of its spending.

A social boycott

City Councilor Alex Fallman used part of his closing comments Monday to talk about the controversies on social media.

“I don’t feel like Facebook has been a very effective platform for us to discuss city business or political issues at all,” Fallman said. “There’s an environment on social media that is very difficult to get any point across, to find any agreement, so tonight, I’m telling anybody that’s listening or who’s going to read about this later, that I’m not going to post anything related to any political issue, at any level of government, on social media anymore.” Fallman said while he may still share posts from City Hall, he has no intention of engaging in social media, even when it comes to elections.

Fallman offered his cell phone number and email to anyone who wished to communicate with him, adding, “It’s not going to happen on Facebook anymore.”

At the county

Comments continued the following morning at the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, starting with Lynn Sullins, who gave each supervisor a copy of the books, “Make Your Bed” by Ret. Adm. William McRaven and “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” She suggested each board member read selected passages and urged the board to work together and focus on solving relevant local issues, helping people and protecting the environment.

Crescent City Mayor Pro Tem Heidi Kime came to the supervisors meeting to say the opportunities presented through the sister city relationship are boundless and reminded residents to look at the big picture.

“I have a deep concern with some recent activities on social media,” Kime said. “While I strongly believe everybody has the right to say whatever they want, to voice their opinions, uninformed or not, I have a sincere issue with an elected official using social media for cyberbullying. This is not a new M.O. for a certain elected official to come out and direct nastiness toward members of our community.”

Referring to Supervisor Roger Gitlin, she brought up past controversies surrounding Lisa McCowan, Safeway Manager Brian Ridgely, Oxford House and its residents, and “now the entire city council.”

“It’s outrageous that this is happening,” Kime said.

Kime urged board members to unplug from social media.

“Let’s talk kindly and supportively of the people we work with, our community,” she said. “We can all do better.”

Gitlin’s reasons

Asked about the issue by phone Wednesday, Gitlin said as a resident of Crescent City, he wrote to the council to express his displeasure to “spending money we don’t have.” Gitlin said he didn’t have an avenue for commenting on city business at the supervisors meeting, so he opted to make his statements on Facebook.

Gitlin said while he believes in the sister city program, the cost of transporting four people using public money causes a financial strain on Crescent City.

“I believe in the sister city program, but I find it irresponsible that the community is faced with bearing the cost when we are paying paltry wages to police officers,” Gitlin said, adding some officers pay for health insurance out of pocket. “What is the necessity? Why send so many people? I will say I think it’s overkill.”

Gitlin said as a supervisor, he is also opposed to spending public money for three county personnel to take what he called “a feel good trip,” and said he would have voted no on allocating the money if he’d been present at the May 8 meeting.

Mayor questions

By phone last week, Crescent City Mayor Blake Inscore, who was in Boston, said many negative comments on social media were directed at him personally, leaving him at a loss for words.

“These are angry people who have been given momentum by a politician who continues to stir the pot,” Inscore said. Inscore questioned whether the issue is a way of creating political division in the community in a primary election year.

Inscore also questioned the timing of the online attacks, saying they began right after he announced his endorsement of incumbent supervisor candidates Chris Howard and Gerry Hemmingsen.

Inscore said he has opted to “take the high road,” and had not posted on social media in response to any of the comments made there.

“It seems very personal, to me,” Inscore said. “It’s unfortunate, and it may be purely ideological.”