City addresses vacant courthouse, Dixie fire evacuees, and voluntary water conservation

Lauren Westmoreland
[email protected]

At the regular meeting of the Portola City Council held the evening of Wednesday, July 28, the meeting opened with comments from council members. 

Councilmember Stan Peiler reported, “I’ve not had any community development meetings, but I wanted to talk about locals that have been inquiring about the FireWise program in Portola and the possibility of volunteering if they can, and ideas they have to get the community FireWise.” Peiler also reported that due to the fires and evacuees, the local resource center and food pantry is providing assistance. 

Councilmember Phil Oels attended a transportation meeting and has been doing ongoing work clearing brush and trees in Portola.

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Councilmember Tom Cooley reported on his work doing some tree limbing at the site of the future disc golf course along the Riverwalk and reported on his attendance at a fire study group meeting yesterday. “The feasibility study has been issued and we have had positive responses from several parties,” Cooley said.

Mayor Bill Powers reported, “Danny Horton was our musical guest this last Friday evening, and we had a nice crowd for the second summer concert in the park.” 

Powers went on to express that he and City Public Works Director Todd Roberts have spent time going around and talking with several evacuees camped in the Portola city park, saying, “We heard their stories which are pretty grim. One question I asked was had they had a chance to hear from the USFS or Calfire regarding the Dixie Fire, and they said, no. They haven’t yet been informed as to the condition of their properties, from the Keddie area to the Bucks Lake area.

“One evacuee said he knew his house burnt because he watched it in Belden. It was pretty awful. The smoke is back, as we all know, after a nice day yesterday. I want to reiterate that there cannot be more examples than there are right now for reasons to clear our understory here locally,” Powers concluded.

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A brief letter from Beckwourth Fire Department Chief Bret Russell stressed the vital importance of following all burn bans, as “this fire season is no joke, and resources are stripped right now.” 

During the month of June, there were 32 calls responded to by the department, with nine for the Beckwourth division and 22 for the Portola division, as well as one mutual aid call. “I want to again give thanks to the city council, public works, and city manager for their continued support of BFD which gives better public service. Also, we’re about to start recruiting volunteers again soon, so if you are interested in volunteering, please contact the chief,” the letter read in part. 

Melissa Klundby of the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District (NSAQMD) reported there are still two woodsheds available to be placed in the Portola or Greater Portola area. 

“If you’ve got an EPA certified, qualified stove, we’d love to get you a shed to hold a cord of wood, and there are lots of free chimney sweep vouchers available,” Klundby said. “There is also plenty of funding for EPA certified wood stoves in the Portola and Greater Portola area.” 

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Poor air quality is predicted for Portola tomorrow due to the Dixie Fire, and Klundby noted that it would be good to stay indoors if possible. 

Susan Scarlett, city finance officer, noted that she has clients that have unfortunately lost their homes, and that she herself is in an evacuation warning. 

City manager Lauren Knox reported that first, on the disc golf project, next steps are being developed, which include a reduction of many fuels along the Riverwalk, not only for the disc golf course, but for fire safety. “You will see equipment and people down there, so just a heads up on that piece,” she said. 

Knox also spoke about what the city is doing for evacuees, and how the city has been in constant contact with the county to find ways to best assist as needed. 

“Great progress is also being made in mapping, with much work already put into the mapping structure for the city and will help people to look up a parcel is more easily and city infrastructure as well,” Knox said.  

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Peiler commented, “I wanted to commend all of the people that he has seen reach out to offer their trailers, homes, lawns- when our community needs to pull together, we do it. Thank you all.”

The consent calendar was then approved unanimously by roll call vote, and council moved on to discuss the courthouse in Portola. 

Plumas-Sierra Municipal Courthouse in Portola
Mayor Bill Powers drafted a letter on behalf of the council to local judges regarding the Plumas/Sierra Regional Courthouse, located at 600 South Gulling Street. 

“The end-goal of the letter is to eventually make a case to the Administration of Courts, by first gaining buy in from the local judges, to not continue to let the building sit practically vacant,” Powers said. “This empty building is just driving me nuts.” 

According to the city, in 2011 the Administration of the Courts (AOC) funded and constructed a facility in Portola that was to be “used by two local judiciaries for more minor localized offenses and traffic violations in the eastern portions of both Plumas and Sierra Counties.” 

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The draft letter goes on to read, “Soon after completion, the facility was left unused by virtue of minimal docket load and deemed by local judges impractical to have judges and support staff travel from the established courts in Quincy and Downieville, or staff the site with a clerk. 

Since that time, the facility has been left unused, save for one small office space in the very rear used by a CalTrans engineer working in the area.

The structure is falling to eventual ruin due to lack of maintenance and vandalism.
With this letter, Portola City Council requests that you join us in contacting the AOC prompting them to take action and make a determination that the facility can be sold, leased, or rented for a minimal fee to local law enforcement, government agency, or other community affiliates so that repair and ongoing maintenance will be facilitated. 

At present, the condition of the facility and property are an eyesore and embarrassment to the AOC, the city, and, ultimately, the local judiciaries,” the letter closed.  

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Powers asked for all to approve the letter to be sent out, and after some further discussion about garnering support from various local parties and agencies, all agreed to move forward with sending the letter. 

Voluntary Water Conservation

Knox said, “The City of Portola has received a few inquiries regarding whether there are water restrictions in place. The city has not received any mandatory requirement from the State to implement water conservation measures. At this time, Governor Newsom has asked all California residents to voluntarily cut water usage by 15 percent.”

Due to the evident drought, staff is recommending that the council consider implementing volunteer water conservation measures for residents. 

“To be clear, the suggestion is not that the measures are mandatory, nor would there be any ramifications for residents who do not follow the recommendations,” Knox clarified.

Potential voluntary measures include residents refraining from the following:

• The application of potable water to any driveway or sidewalk.

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• Using potable water to water outdoor landscapes in a manner that cause runoff to adjacent property, non-irrigated areas, private and public walkways, roadways, parking lots, or structures.

• Using a hose that dispenses potable water to wash motor vehicles, unless the hose is fitted with a shut-off nozzle.

• Using potable water in a fountain or decorative water feature, unless the water is recirculated.

Residents should only water before 10 a.m. and after 7 p.m., and only on their watering days, which would be Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on the North Side, and Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays on the South Side of Portola. 

Council discussed these voluntary implementations, noting that this would be a good test run before the restrictions become mandatory, and with low water levels in all surrounding lakes and waterways, all were in favor of the voluntary implementations. 

“If you want to help us to try and save water, this would be good,” Peiler commented. Morton made a motion to approve, and all voted yes by roll call vote. 

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Future Community Town Hall
Powers noted that he would like for council to consider holding a Community Town Hall meeting to discuss emergency and fire related items. 

Knox asked for direction on potential wanted outcomes of the meeting, and a timeframe, so that staff can move forward appropriately. 

She noted that Liberty Utilities was one party that would be interested in sharing information for locals to prepare for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) at such a gathering as well. 

Powers noted that there wasn’t going to be a better time to get started on disseminating information to the community, with smoke still heavy in the air, in addition to FireWise discussion and information sharing.

All agreed that the meeting would be a good idea, and after hammering out some details about how best to garner comments from the community, and where to hold the meeting, decided to move forward on the details of the planning process. 

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“That’s another question,” Powers said. “There may be restrictions with indoor gatherings coming back up with rising Covid-19 case numbers, we just don’t know yet.” 

Personnel Policy Changes
The final item on the agenda touched on a variety of personnel policy changes that are needed to better deal with or define certain issues that have become evident. 

“When the federal government declared Juneteenth as a national holiday, many entities scrambled to determine what the protocol was for closing government functions,” Knox explained.  “The consensus for the State was to stay open, as it was on such a short notice, and the city followed. This sparked staff to review the city holidays to ensure it is up to date and clear, and what changes may be needed.”

The city currently observes all federal holidays, but staff recommends that recognition of Lincoln’s birthday as a legacy holiday be replaced with the observance of Juneteenth. 

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Other talks took place around the work week, with the employment world shifting to accommodate difficulties in finding and retaining employees. Another item up for discussion was the potential to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“With this, many employees have recognized that they want more flexibility and balance in their work and home lives,” Knox said.  “Because of this, many employers are having to shift their employment practices to accommodate for employee desires.”

One feasible option brought forward was to allow for alternative work week schedules, such as 4/10 (four days a week, ten hours a day) work weeks instead of the current eight hours a day, five days a week schedule.

According to Knox, many studies have found that employees who have an alternate work week schedule which allows for more days of rest have shown increased overall wellbeing, increased productivity, and lower feelings of burnout. 

“Many of our employees who currently are on 4/10s have expressed similar feelings,” Knox explained. “Staff would like to accommodate for alternate work weeks in the personnel policy changes.” 

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In order to accommodate this, City Hall would need to be closed on Fridays. This change would not mean that employees have to work 4/10s, but it would allow for the potential. 

“Additionally, if City Hall is closed Fridays and an employee is working a five day a week schedule, it would allow for uninterrupted time to complete projects, which can be beneficial in accomplishing certain tasks,” Knox explained.

There were some small details such as sick leave accrual, which would also be included in a redline version of the various personnel policies, which is planned to be presented to the council at a later date. 

After further discussion envisioning what these changes might look like in Portola, compared to other cities who are implementing the four day a week, ten hours a day workweeks, Knox pointed out that it was becoming very much more common.

Council opted to take a bit more time to consider all mentioned topics before making a final decision and concluded the evenings’ agenda. 

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The City Council welcomes all to its meetings which are regularly held the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. Community interest and participation is encouraged and welcome.