“Print the truth anyway”
Floods, feuds and freedom of the press in the town of Woodland
Flat. That is the first word that comes to mind as you’re driving through the agricultural land north of Woodland: a few stands of leafless windbreak trees, a silo or two, and here and there a farm house interrupting the monotony of the seemingly empty distance.
But ‘flat’ doesn’t describe the nature of the feud going on out here over how to protect Woodland and its surrounding farmland from potential, though unlikely, flooding. Aside from any flood of water, this town is more likely to drown in the flood of acrimony and misinformation over the issue.
This is the story of how an angry citizen-activist rallied a small town newspaper publisher to her cause, only to be censored on the streets and dismissed by the powers-that-be. It’s the story of political struggles in Small Town America.
According to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) report and an Army Corps of Engineers’ study, Woodland is subject to severe flooding about once every 100 years. Should such an event occur, the existing levees along Cache Creek may not be enough to contain the waters, and about 6,500 acres between the creek and Woodland would be inundated. How Woodland and Yolo County should respond to the FEMA report has been the subject of much heated debate.
In the furtherance of that debate Martin Barnes, editor and publisher of a small sporadic quarterly out of Davis called The Flatlander, decided to cover the story. At the behest of Brenda Cedarblade, a Woodland resident and business owner, The Flatlander tackled the story with all the righteous indignation necessary for an insightful analysis. That is, it took Cedarblade’s side.
About five years old, The Flatlander is a reincarnation of Winds of Change, a paper started by Barnes in the early ’80s with his friend, R. Crumb, the famously weird, and weirdly famous, cartoonist. One of Crumb’s drawings, a benign rural scene, serves as The Flatlander’s banner.
Describing his paper as “a voice for the progressives,” for “people who like Ralph Nader,” Barnes makes no bones about his paper’s coverage of the flood issue. “We’re making a hero out of Brenda,” he said, and then referred to The Flatlander’s motto: “Print the truth anyway … ”
Brenda Cedarblade owns a dilapidated 19th-century brick house situated near the Cache Creek floodplain. She boards horses on the property and also owns the Tack Warehouse, a business in downtown Woodland.
According to the FEMA map of the area, which outlines where flooding is most likely to occur, her property is not in danger. So her concern is less with the 100-year flood than with Yolo County Supervisor Tom Stallard.
She feels Stallard is overzealously in favor of a plan to build a floodwall to protect the city of Woodland from possible flooding and, more important, from the expensive flood insurance they will have to pay. The problem with the floodwall, she says, is that it could increase regular flooding on her property and others that are between the creek and where the wall would be built.
In addition to butting heads with Stallard over the floodwall, Cedarblade has also been battling him over the building of a transitional housing project a block away from her tack shop. The Wayfarer Center, says Cedarblade, was approved without proper public notification. She has accused Stallard, who is the fundraising chairman for the project, of misinforming downtown business owners by telling them that the Center was only for women and children, when in fact male parolees are eligible for services there as well.
Her business has been broken into three times in the last six months and $30,000 in silver bridles has been stolen. Cedarblade is worried about the number of parolees that the Center will bring to Woodland and thinks Stallard railroaded the project to get his way.
The Flatlander devoted most of its fall 2001 issue to Cedarblade, putting her on the cover as “The Erin Brockovich of Woodland.” She was the subject of the editorial as well as two articles, one on the floodwall and one on the Wayfarer Center. Both articles pitted her against Stallard, quoting her as saying, “My life is being made hell by Tom Stallard.”
Also in that issue, Cedarblade bought a half-page ad for her business. An ad for Stallard’s opponent in the upcoming county elections, Frank Sieferman Jr., ran alongside one of the articles, as well as a half-page ad with a skull and crossbones urging readers to “STOP STALLORD’S (sic) WALL.”
When The Flatlander covered Cedarblade, not only was it the first time they had covered a Woodland issue, but it was also the first time they would distribute the paper in Woodland. To pursue his circulation goals, Barnes sought to sell ads to Woodland businesses. One of the businesses he contacted was the Next Chapter, a bookstore owned by John Hamilton, an acquaintance of Barnes’.
Hamilton agreed to buy an ad and told Barnes he could leave copies of the free paper at the Next Chapter, next to the several other free papers that were available there.
However, when Hamilton saw the issue, he was disgusted by the paper’s blatantly one-sided coverage. It seemed to him that Cedarblade had bought the issue, and it was obvious that The Flatlander had never contacted Stallard, even though it went to great lengths to vilify him. Hamilton got in touch with Barnes and told him he didn’t want the paper being distributed at his store.
Cedarblade labels it censorship, and contends that Stallard had asked Hamilton to remove the paper and that Hamilton had done so as a favor to Stallard. It is a belief for which she admittedly has no proof.
Sitting in his spacious, inviting store, which used to be a rice mill, Hamilton rolled his eyes at the allegation that Stallard guided his decision not to carry the paper. “I do not want to be painted as a censor,” Hamilton said. He simply thought The Flatlander’s take on the whole issue was lopsided and he didn’t want to support it. And he told Barnes exactly that. He denies Stallard ever asked him to remove the paper.
At mention of Cedarblade’s other concerns over the Wayfarer Center, Hamilton rolls his eyes again. He has had good interactions with the homeless people in the area and doesn’t see how they can just be shunted out of downtown. Only two blocks away from Cedarblade’s tack shop, he was aware of the Wayfarer Center project from the beginning.
Stallard confirmed Hamilton’s story, insisting he had nothing to do with the removal of the paper and offering a frank assessment of the woman who is perhaps his most vocal critic.
“Brenda has little regard for the truth. I don’t know if she’s paranoid or … ” Stallard said, trailing off, not wanting to complete his speculation. He said he has no interest in defaming her. Stallard did, however, condemn The Flatlander’s coverage as a personal attack, calling the paper a “ready-fire-aim operation.” They never contacted him for his opinion on the matters discussed.
“I have spoken fairly and frankly about the issue,” he said of the floodwall, although he admitted that maybe he talked too frankly and too soon about the benefits of the floodwall over other options. He says he is willing to accept any solution that the community chooses.
As far as the Wayfarer Center goes, Stallard believes he went through all the proper channels, and it wasn’t until the sign went up on the empty lot where the project will be built that Cedarblade began making noise.
“She seems to have a persecution complex,” Stallard said.
In the back office of the Tack Warehouse, Cedarblade sits attentively behind her desk. “I don’t want to be accused of NIMBY-ism,” she says. “But it’s like all these planets aligned and I got stuck in the middle.”
She said she’s not against homeless people, or parolees. She even volunteers at the domestic violence center next door. But even though she has never been hassled by the transients who hang out in Freeman Park next door, Cedarblade said she’s had to clean up needles and “human poop” from behind her store.
“Woodland is a small, safe community, with an agricultural influence and charm,” Brenda says, describing why she chooses to live here. “I just think it may be losing all that.”
Nevertheless, Cedarblade’s vendetta against Tom Stallard may not have much support either in Woodland or in the farming community to the north. John Hamilton is convinced Stallard’s heart is in the right place. Nancy Lea, a farmer with property on the FEMA flood map, has known Stallard for years and believes he wants to do what’s right for the community.
Her group, Heartland Farmers of Yolo County, seems to be a well-organized campaign for making the voices of rural Woodland heard on the flood protection issue. It has even hired its own engineer to review the Army Corps’ study. But these other voices never made it into The Flatlander.
Talking to Barnes on the phone, it sounds like he’s in his car, and one can imagine all that flat land rolling past the window. He’s convinced of the righteousness of his cause. “We’re telling the other side and we’re telling the truth,” he says. “We’re fueling the revolution.”