Vets Hall drama intensifies with fresh disputes, revelations

TENSE MEETING Commander Jeff Sterling at the podium during last Friday’s Legion meeting. KLH | Union

Hall lacks food permits, biz license; nonprofit status in question; press ouster attempted

Note: this story, updated from this week's print edition, includes information earlier posted online. – Ed.

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA –  The Arcata Veterans Memorial Building appears awash in problems after a week of conflict and strife at the historic J Street building. 

Plans for an in-house restaurant have collapsed amid revelations that the hall’s kitchen lacks necessary permits from the city and county. Despite this, the kitchen has since at least 2016 been used to prepare meals for the public and marketed to food vendors for commercial rental. The kitchen manager/chef left last Wednesday on sour terms. 

Friday’s monthly meeting of American Legion Post 274 ended abruptly when this reporter, a Legionnaire who also serves as the post’s historian, refused to cease news gathering.  

Post 274 also apparently lacks a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN), also known as a Federal Tax Identification Number. 

Online IRS records show the Legion post’s EIN revoked on May 15, 2018. This is typically done after three consecutive years of failing to file a required Form 990 notice. No reinstatement is listed.

An EIN is required for nonprofits to accept tax deductible donations. If not a valid nonprofit, that could bear on the legality of any tax deductions taken by recent hall donors.  

The Legion also lacks a City of Arcata business license for its onsite activities. According to city records, Post 274 has a current business license, but only for off-site functions such as booths on the Plaza during special events.

The current, limited license was taken out specifically for last year’s 4th of July Jubilee. A license covering the building would have been automatically granted had that box on the form been checked, but it wasn’t. 

Nonprofit organizations are required to have business licenses, which they may obtain at no cost.

14th and J Cafe – not happening

The planned, celebrated and oft-delayed opening of a PastaLuego successor restaurant at the Vets Hall is not to be.

Nicole Maki packs up her cooking equipment as APD officers whose presence she had requested stand by. A couple of helpers also turned up, but the property removal reportedly took a few days. KLH | Union

Last Wednesday, PastaLuego owner and American Legion Auxiliary Unit Arcata #274 Vice President Nicole “Coco” Maki removed her cooking equipment from the Vets Hall kitchen, under the watchful gaze of two Arcata Police officers there on civil standby, called there at her request.

A since-deleted post on the Vets Hall Facebook page announced the end of the arrangement, stating that the hall had to “change direction” with regard to the kitchen’s volunteer leadership. The post said that “Nicole Maki is no longer that person. It is unfortunate that she chose a different direction, we thank her for her short time she was with us and wish her luck in her future.”

For her part, Maki also vagueposted, thanking American Legion Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling, who runs the hall, though not by name. “While I truly appreciated being a part of bringing the kitchen back to life, it became very obvious that My business, Pasta Luego to go, needs a majority of my time.”

Were the separation as amicable as the posts indicate, two APD officers wouldn’t have had to assert a calming presence Wednesday afternoon while Maki removed her possessions from the county-owned hall’s downstairs kitchen, and loaded them into a waiting U-Haul truck outside.

The events capped an increasingly tense dispute between Maki and Sterling over their well-publicized arrangement, under which she would operate the hall’s kitchen on behalf of the Legion Auxiliary.

The “14th and J Café “ as it was tentatively called, was to serve veteran functions such as luncheons and dinners, but also offer restaurant fare to the public. Recently, the hall kitchen was in the news as a possible site for feeding hungry Arcata High students.

The developing kitchen operation and its hoped-for revenue stream has been key to improving the hall’s difficult financial situation. “We’re taking on water,” Sterling told attendees at the January Post 274 meeting. “We need to fundraise.”

But according to Maki, relations began to break down between her and Sterling in December, as disputes over hall management – most of them related only off the record – grew increasingly bitter.

Maki said she was paid just $900 since the November closure of PastaLuego in Jacoby’s Storehouse – $300 of it in cash.  She said Sterling later told her that the payments had been for purchase of her kitchen equipment. But she said she hadn’t agreed to sell her culinary gear, which she retrieved Feb. 5.

Sterling confirmed that Maki had no contract for employment, stating that she was “volunteering and trying to sell things.” He said she was paid an additional $1,000 cash.

On Thursday, Jan. 30, an environmental food scientist from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) inspected the facility to ascertain its adequacy for wholesale food preparation. The aged kitchen’s antiquated fixtures and storage practices failed on several counts, requiring repair and remediation before it may be used for wholesale production.

The Jan. 30, 2020 CDPH inspection report.

The vendor who’d hoped to use the kitchen, Louise Zuleger of Marie Louise’s Gourmet Seasonings and Finishing Salts, said the failed inspection cost her $500. She and Maki since applied to use the Foodworks Culinary Center in  Aldergrove Industrial Park as an alternative.

Zuleger said the state inspector told her that when he arrived at the hall last Thursday, he went to Sterling’s office, located just off the front lobby. The CDPH official told him that he was there to inspect the kitchen, according to Zuleger, but Sterling told him there was no kitchen at the hall.

The inspector then called Zuleger and learned that the kitchen was downstairs and around the corner, so he proceeded there to conduct the inspection.

Sterling denied telling the state inspector that there is no kitchen at the hall. He said he told him that he knew of no renter named “Marie Louise’s Gourmet Seasonings and Finishing Salts” because he hadn’t been involved in that rental.

When the subsequent inspection turned up multiple dealbreaking issues, Zuleger said the inspector told her that any businesses who had used the non-compliant kitchen were in violation and would be cited.

Maki said she recently learned that the hall kitchen hasn’t been inspected by Humboldt County Environmental Health and has no county health permit. That would disallow more than three meals to be offered to the public within a 90-day period. The kitchen may still be used to prepare food for internal hall functions.

Nonetheless, the hall has held frequent food-serving events and invited the public, including “Warrior’s Lunches” as well as dinners, including its “Little Italy” nights and recent “New Year’s Eve Pre-Game Bash.” That event was advertised on the Vets Hall Facebook page with the pitch, “Our house chef will be making pizza and we will also have an all you can eat nacho table. Pizza is $10 and nacho table is $10 per person.”

The wall damage listed in item no. 5 of the CDPH report. KLH | Union

Sterling insisted Wednesday morning that the kitchen has been inspected and “absolutely” does possess a county health permit.

According to Christine Messenger, county Department of Health & Human Services spokesperson, “The Arcata Vets Hall doesn’t have a retail food permit from our Division of Environmental Health. We have not inspected the kitchen.”

The health permit would have been required for Maki’s 14th and J Café to open to the public on any regular basis, as would a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) from the City of Arcata.

But it doesn’t look like any official permitting was being sought for the restaurant. The city’s Community Development department has no record of any CUP application.

Wednesday afternoon, Sterling revised his remarks on the county permit claim, stating that he had been referring to a state CDPH permit he said was issued last year to another wholesale kitchen renter, Angry Chiles, a local hot sauce manufacturer.

On top of all this, the hall’s alcohol-serving license through the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency is in some jeopardy following complaints from neighbors over noise and visual impacts from hall activities.

An ABC hearing was held last week in Eureka, and a decision as to whether to allow continued alcohol service at the hall’s downstairs canteen will be rendered within 30 days. Along with the kitchen, the canteen has also been developed as a major revenue generator for the hall.

Sterling said he’s in talks with a veteran who has culinary experience to take over the kitchen operation.

Maki, who had been set to assume leadership of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit – Arcata 274, now says she is taking a leave of absence from the organization.

Meanwhile, back at the still-vacant shop where PastaLuego was located in Jacoby’s Storehouse, more disappointing news surfaced this week: Frankie’s NY Bagels, who’d hoped to open a branch there, won’t be doing so. Managing co-owner Bill Chino said another business is in the queue and ready to initiate move-in at the spot.

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Monthly Legion meeting

Friday night’s monthly meeting of American Legion Post 274 saw attempts by Sterling to tamp down the growing chaos and controversy enveloping the hall. 

Gaveled to order at the crack of 6:17 p.m., the 20 or so attendees – Legionnaires and guest members of the public – said the usual prayer, Pledge of Allegiance and recited the Preamble to the Constitution of the American Legion. 

A sanguine financial report by Assistant Treasurer Phillip Nicklas found “more than enough” income from donors, fundraisers, rentals and the downstairs bar to cover hall expenses, with some cutback on building maintenance and travel expenses. Especially helpful has been volunteer labor by members and others.

Sterling then reported that due to “unforeseen circumstances,” Maki had departed and that “our kitchen is no longer with us.”

He then announced that Legion Auxiliary Unit – Arcata 274, which was meeting in another room, would join the Legionnaires later in the evening for a joint meeting to address violations of the Code of Conduct – copies of which had been handed out – under which both groups operate. 

Referring to the code, Sterling said, “That’s what it means to be a member. We have guidelines and rules and regulations that we follow.” He said that “on the Auxiliary side of the house, the ownership, the leadership somewhere along the line, they forgot why they’re here.”

As the meeting wore on, Maki was portrayed as the bad actor in the imbroglio, blamed both for failing to take the initiative on kitchen matters, and for having done so. Her ethics and personal character were also attacked in various ways.

The unpermitted commercial kitchen, still being marketed on Feb. 10, 2020, at gsp.humboldt.edu/projects/2017_GSP470/ArcataVetsHall/Rentals.html

Regarding the kitchen, Sterling said that, “We have not done any resale for commercial use,” he said. “If we wanted to be an operational kitchen, there’s procedures that you have go through that I was working on, and was expecting Nicole to spearhead. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”

Kitchen rental rates, still being advertised at press time.

However, at press time, the Arcata Veterans Group website still advertised the hall’s “commercial kitchen” with rental rates listed “for any event that needs good food.” Sterling said he hadn’t had a chance to research the matter, but that the website would be revised. 

He said he wanted to refocus on the members-only canteen (bar) and on resolving complaints by neighbors which had been discussed at the previous week’s ABC hearing. He said he was optimistic that the ABC administrative law judge would re-approve the canteen’s liquor license.

Legionnaire and bar manager Ron Bledsoe reported fruitful discussions with a neighbor who had complained, whose issue could be easily resolved by addition of a curtain to the canteen window.

Sterling again said that kitchen renter Angry Chiles had passed a CDPH inspection last June. Aniza Liming, owner of Angry Chiles, confirmed this. But, she said, no state inspection of the kitchen itself had taken place. 

“The inspection was towards my acidified food canning license,” Liming said. “The CDPH inspector must have assumed that the kitchen itself was licensed. She was basically there to inspect me, my product and  production process.” 

Said Liming, “I found it online under ‘Arcata certified kitchens’, and one can only assume that whoever runs it has all the licensing and is compliant.” 

Sterling said he hadn’t approved the previous week’s inspection for Zuleger’s specialty salt business. “The person that was in our kitchen tried to commit fraud by allowing an illegal action to happen,” he said.

Bledsoe said “miscommunications and outright falsehoods” had been reported by the Mad River Union. “The person who scheduled the health inspection [Zuleger] did not have permission to use our kitchen,” he said. 

Contradicting Sterling’s earlier version of the most recent CDPH inspection, Bledsoe stated that, “The health inspector himself, Jeff did not talk to, nor did he ever come to the office.” He said he had told the inspector that Zuleger wasn’t authorized to use the kitchen.

He said that Maki had attempted to sub-let the hall’s kitchen to Zuleger without Sterling’s permission. Sterling said the matter would be discussed with Auxiliary members as a New Business item later in the meeting.

“This is our home,” Sterling said. “This is our building, this is here for us.” He noted that November 11 marks the 90th year of Vets Hall operations. “That’s impressive,” he said.

“I want to see this foster and grow,” he said. “I’ll be damned if I’ll let someone take it from me.” That statement gained hearty applause.

“That being said,” he continued, “I’m concerned about our Auxiliary. I’m concerned about the behavior and the Code of Conduct and their level of professionalism. I’m concerned that they’re not here to help us. I’m concerned they’re trying to take us down from within.”

He singled out as an example a comment on the Mad River Union’s Facebook page made by Auxiliary Chaplain Laya Clark, which accused unnamed hall leaders of “defrauding multiple renters” by claiming that the kitchen was licensed, and for allegedly telling the CDPH inspector that the hall had no kitchen.” 

“I don’t feel my comment is out of line,” Clark later said. “The truth will come out.”

“That doesn’t seem that she’s here for us,” Sterling said. He claimed that Clark had contacted “department headquarters” and said that the Auxiliary wanted Sterling’s ouster as commander.

Not discussed at the meeting before or after the break was any possible legal liability or financial exposure stemming from the hall’s lack of permits. Nor was there any discussion about obtaining them.

“I have 150 veterans that voted me in,” Sterling said. “Do you want to see me removed and reprimanded as commander?” This elicited multiple “no” comments. 

“So what do we do about this?” he asked. He suggested that Clark be punished by being suspended from Legion functions and use of the canteen for a year. “We cannot tear apart ourselves in our own house,” he said. “And we can’t have one of our support [sic] tear us apart.”

Sergeant At Arms Logan Sutherland  quoted the Auxiliary’s official role to “advance the mission” of the Legion, calling Clark’s comment “a violation.”  

A Legionnaire identified as a former commander asked whether Clark’s “foggy accusations” would be “aired in person” later in the meeting. Sterling replied that the Auxiliary would join the meeting later.

“So all of this is going to be transcribed, above board and open book and we can sniff out the bullshit ourselves?” the  past commander asked. Sterling replied in the affirmative.

Sterling acknowledged that he can’t directly discipline the Auxiliary, which is a separate nonprofit organization. But, he said, he could control their access to Legion functions and the canteen. He said he’d speak to Auxiliary President Alison Robbins about internal discipline, “but I would like us to have a plan ourselves.”

Other members said that Auxiliary members had made several comments that reflect poorly on the Legion in recent months. One said that “misguided” Auxiliary members were “maybe trying to take over leadership of this post from the Auxiliary, which is very strange.”

Sterling said he was unclear on the Auxiliary’s leadership and direction, but that “they’re here to support us.”

“Nicole put a lot of bad tastes in mouths of certain individuals,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that some of them listened to it.”

Asked who the leader of the Auxiliary is, Sterling replied, “I’m the commander!” 

An unidentified Legionnaire then expressed strong support for Sterling. He said that Maki had “tried to undermine him,” and that she had told him, “it was her post, not Jeff’s post.” He cast Maki as a “known troublemaker” within the community who had caused problems with the Arcata Farmers Market, Arcata Police and the City Council. 

“I knew she was trouble,” the man said. He said the Union’s initial story on the matter was “slanted completely one sided.”

Legion Judge Advocate Ted Alton defended the story and its writer. “You can’t shoot the messenger,” he said.

Sutherland said there was a need to repair the Legion’s image with the community and suggested a free community event such as a pancake breakfast.

“We are not doing anything in our kitchen,” Sterling said. “I’m worried about this chile lady.” He said the kitchen could only serve members. 

Sterling also said that he hadn’t yet seen the CDPH inspection report, though it was unclear which one he was referring to – Zuleger’s or Liming’s. Zuleger’s was posted with the initial story, and appears above.

Sterling then called for a 10-minute recess, after which the Auxiliary would be brought in for the Code of Conduct review.

Not discussed at the meeting before or after the break was any possible legal liability or financial exposure stemming from the hall’s lack of permits. Nor was there any discussion about obtaining them.

During the break, Sutherland asked this reporter what his role at the meeting is – historian or journalist. He was told that it was as both historian and journalist.

Sutherland said that this reporter had to choose between being a Legion member and a journalist. “I’m going to be a journalist, but I don’t see where that’s exclusive to being a Legion member,” Sutherland was told.

He said a lot of members were uncomfortable with a reporter being in the room and deserved not to be misquoted, and to be able to decide whether or not to participate in the meeting with a reporter present. Sutherland asked this reporter to announce his presence as a newspaper reporter, and this was immediately agreed upon.

When the meeting resumed, this reporter told members that he was there taking notes for a story – as he has done routinely and without objection since 2017 – which would be in the next edition of the Union.

Judge Advocate Alton was asked to rule on the appropriateness of a reporter being present. He said he couldn’t make a definitive ruling, but noted that the reporter is a Legion member. “I’m not sure we want to say, ‘‘OK, take off your journalist’s hat or leave.”

Contradicting his earlier agreement that the Code of Conduct discussion with the Auxiliary would be open, Sterling then said that it would be off the record, and not reported. 

Another member said that it was “extremely disturbing that there’s a member of the press or a journalist” in attendance. “Are they here as a member or as somebody doing a hot story on the dirt in town?”

Adjutant Joel Gorber made a motion to expel members of the media from the meeting “because I’m not comfortable with it.” The motion was quickly seconded by a member Sterling later identified as Doc Ray. Ray had declined to identify himself as the seconder. Told that this reporter was the post historian, he said, “that’s fine, it doesn’t have anything to do with history at this point.”

“Our dirty laundry is not the purview of the public,” Gorber said. “I know that this stuff sells.” He said that newspapers are “filled with bullshit.”

Sutherland cautioned speakers not to use profanity with guests – which included  children – present.

Auxiliary President Robbins was asked for her recommendation. She said the post could act in accordance with its by-laws.  

Another member said that the Legion preaches openness and transparency, and that news coverage could be “a benefit to fix what’s been out there.” Added the member, “He’s one of us.”

“He’s not here to slander or berate anybody,” Sutherland said of the reporter. “He told me he wants the facts.”

Sterling said the upcoming portion of the discussion would be “the best place for him to stay.” 

An unidentified member suggested that the reporter could stay, as long as what happened wasn’t reported.

“I just want to remind Kevin that we do have a Code of Conduct,” said Chaplain Leonard Shumard. 

Ironically, the Code of Professional Conduct instructs “All Legion Members, Officers, Commissioners, Committee Members and Employees of the American Legion Department of California Shall, At All Times,” to “Fully disclose all relevant information that would be material to a particular management or financial decision.”

The Legion Auxiliary Code of Ethics dictates that  “The American Legion Auxiliary and American Legion Auxiliary Foundation will provide comprehensive and timely information to the public, the media, and its members, and is responsive to reasonable requests for information.”

Gorber reiterated that he didn’t want “a reporter in the room writing shit down.” He said of journalists, “They’re usually little more than tabloid writers,” citing a New York Times story on President Trump.

A subsequent vote of members was 9–4 in favor of closing the reminder of the meeting to the press, or as Sterling put it, “to ask the press to leave.” 

Sutherland cautioned the reporter not to take photos in what he called “a private building.”

This reporter told attendees attempts to shut down news reporting in taxpayer-supported public buildings with members of the public present were unlikely to be successful. Sterling was also asked what by-law or other legal basis the expulsion was based upon, since none had been cited. 

It was also pointed out that the only form of reporting being prohibited is one with professional standards of balance (which includes mechanisms for correction, criticism and counter-arguments). Not covered by the motion was anyone else who might wish to, for example, write about it on social media, blog about it or even write letters to the editor about it. Only professional journalism was being suppressed.   

Sterling said he wanted to hold a “closed door session” to prohibit coverage, but didn’t cite any relevant by-law.

“You should know that I don’t intend to leave or stop taking notes,” this reporter told the gathering.

With that, Sterling abruptly moved to end the meeting. “I want to thank every one of you for every part of this,” he said.  “This is us that makes this happen.”

“We’re here to support,” he said. “We’re not here to  tear each other down.”

Following Shumard’s closing prayer and solemn recovery of the POW/MIA flag, the meeting ended.

Note: this writer is a member of American Legion Arcata Post 274. – Ed.

 

 







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