Twice a month, Gerald Cochran ambles aboard a small turboprop plane and soars 355 miles from his home in Crescent City to San Francisco. The amiable 72-year-old is a member of the Golden Gate Bridge District's Board of Directors. In Fiscal Year 2013, he was reimbursed more than $23,000 for his expenses in traveling from there to here, and, once here, bunking down at a modest Lombard Street motel.
Absent context, the notion of a Del Norte County resident traveling here from the border of Oregon, at public cost, to help decide how to run this region's iconic landmark makes about as much sense as sending a San Franciscan on semimonthly voyages to Crescent City to weigh in on the well-being of the G. H. Douglas Memorial Bridge.
But, as evidenced in locales worldwide with histories far longer and even more convoluted than California's, context can explain a great deal. If not make sense of it.
Cochran's twice-monthly pilgrimages to San Francisco are a vestige of a fateful decision made by his Del Norte County forebears eight decades ago. Along with five other California counties, Del Norte voters took the plunge, offering their homes, farms, vineyards, and whatnot as collateral for some $35 million in bonds to construct the Golden Gate Bridge. Cochran, the former longtime county assessor, gleefully goes into the math: In 1930-31 and '31-'32, the county tacked on a penny to its denizens' property taxes for every $100 of assessed value. In that time, he estimates, Del Norte residents funneled perhaps $15,000 a year toward maintaining those bridge bonds. Then Bank of America stepped in and underwrote the costs; contributions from the six member counties ceased — though their homes, farms, vineyards, and whatnot still would have been imperiled if the bridge project faltered.
Thankfully for all, it did not.
So, in return for perhaps $30,000 worth of Hoover administration-era contributions, Cochran and his predecessors have been shlepping back and forth between the city and Crescent City ever since, at a cost in present-day dollars nearly exceeding that sum every year.
On those many plane rides, Cochran does ponder how a wholly local board would govern differently than one with representatives from San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino, and Del Norte counties. "I do think about that once in a while," he says. "I don't really have an answer for you."
He laughs. Then he notes that the $66 million price tag for the Golden Gate Bridge's proposed suicide barrier is nearly double the cost of erecting the entire bridge. And he laughs again.