by GEOFF S. FEIN
ARCATA IS KNOWN IN HUMBOLDT COUNTY, THE STATE AND even nationally as a progressive community. It has been the breeding ground for environmental causes, for regulations to keep out fast-food restaurants and large national retailers. But some of the six candidates vying for two Arcata City Council seats feel the city is becoming elitist; they feel the council has turned a deaf ear to the concerns of residents.
Each of the candidates brings something different to the campaign. Their backgrounds differ; from business owner to social service agency director to a self-described student of life. They each have a different reason for running; from wanting to see the completion of the city's land use and development codes, to creating a more open city government, to pursuing a free energy system.
There are familiar and fresh faces in the crowd of candidates; Mayor Jim Test, Planning Commissioner Elizabeth Conner, former councilman and mayor Carl Pellatz, activist David Meserve, Cynthia Savage, who heads up an adoption agency, and Dex Anderson, an observer of the political scene who says he has a "lawyer's aptitude" and admits to being a bit "uppity."
All the candidates want to see Arcata prosper, they want to lure clean industries to spur job growth. Anderson and Meserve want to see the police back off from enforcing laws against victimless crimes, such as congregating on downtown sidewalks, or smoking marijuana. Pellatz and Savage say the police are doing a good job and that laws need to be enforced.
Unlike Eureka, candidates in Arcata haven't begun to plant signs on front lawns around town. They say they don't plan on spending a lot of money on their campaigns (how much each has raised won't be known until Oct. 7, the first deadline for filing campaign finance reports). At times it appears there isn't even an election going on. But if you ask the candidates, they all say the future of Arcata is at stake.
THE CANDIDATE: Dex Anderson, 49, a self-described student of life
with a lot of informal education. Was a radio host on a micropower
pirate radio station in Humboldt County. Plans to raise little
money. Hopes to rely on the media to get his word out.
Anderson has been in Arcata since 1997. Although a relative newcomer, he says he has actively followed city politics; indeed, he says he has been a student of politics and philosophy in general since he was a child.
Anderson would like to see Arcata pursue a free energy company. He believes the city could create a company through a public-private partnership that would rely on solar energy. It would also end the city's reliance on PG&E.
"I want us to be free of a monopoly," he said. "Monopolies are anti-competitive."
Anderson would also like to see Arcata stop using fluoride in its water; he says it is a health threat and that putting it in the water supply goes against personal choice (he wants to get the city to begin studying the effects of fluoridation).
Anderson wants to end what he sees as harassment of the homeless and overly aggressive enforcement of victimless crimes by police. He is proposing a "No Focus Policy" that would have police pursue crimes that are out in the open (such as dealing with broken glass on city streets), as opposed to crimes hidden from sight (busting a kid with a marijuana pipe in his pocket).
Anderson would like to have some discussion on a population cap in Arcata; and he'd like to see an end to what he calls the "secret government."
Anderson says the public will never be fully informed until the council no longer meets behind closed doors. Under the state's open meeting law, known as the Brown Act, city boards and commissions can meet behind closed doors to discuss land negotiations, personnel matters and legal strategy.
The public can't have self-government unless they know what is going on; and they don't, he said. "We can't be sure it is honest," he said of the process.
Anderson would also like to give more time to citizens to address the City Council. One idea would be to encourage debate between the council and citizens on agenda and non-agenda items.
"There can be some debate, then things will come out in the open," Anderson said. "That's the major frustration with city government. You can go to a meeting, you can say something, they can make you look like a fool, and you can't come back, your time is up."
Anderson wants council meetings spread out over several evenings and a curfew placed on individual meetings. That would allow council members to have a life, study issues and mull things over, he said.
But nothing will get done in Arcata until the city government stands up for itself, he said.
The city government is intimidated by other forms of government, Anderson charged. Unless the city is willing to push the envelope and challenge the government -- for example, Alcoholic Beverage Control, a state agency -- things won't change in Arcata, he said. (The police have been at odds with downtown businesses that serve alcohol and stay open late at night due to concerns about underage drinking).
One idea Anderson has been giving some thought to is how the city might control who should live here. One possibility would be to have a competition, so that residency isn't based on whether one is born in Arcata or has lived here for years, but on what kind of citizen a person is going to be, Anderson said.
Anderson would also like to propose opening up land for legal camping. It would provide a place for the homeless to live, he said.
THE CANDIDATE: Elizabeth Conner, 48, has been a member of the
Arcata Planning Commission since 1999. She was co-chair of the
Arcata Budget Task Force (2000) and participated in the Arcata
General Plan Task Force (1996-1998). She is executive director
of the Humboldt Bay Housing Development Corp. She managed the
Measure C school bond campaign, approved by voters in 1998.
Conner is in the third year of a four-year term on the Arcata Planning Commission. With a seat opening up on the council and her friends asking her to run, Conner felt the time was ripe.
For six years she has been working on an update of Arcata's general plan; three years on the general plan task force and three years on the planning commission. Conner wants to see the update through to the end.
"I think I'd do a good job serving on the council, updating the land-use code," she said. "I am interested in ensuring that the code does implement the vision embodied in the general plan."
Land-use plans may appear boring to some. But Conner pointed out that this one addresses how the city will look for the next 20 years.
"Land-use decisions are some of the most important decisions that city councils make," she said. "That's where most of my experience lies and where I hope to have the most impact."
The plan will address some of the challenges facing Arcata, Conner said. Issues such as affordable housing, population growth, preserving open space and agricultural land are all contained in the document.
"I am concerned that we continue to provide housing, affordable to a range of incomes, so that we don't become an elite community," she said.
Some ideas being tossed around which Conner favors include exclusionary zoning, where a developer must set aside a certain percentage of units to be rented or sold below market rate.
There are also areas around Arcata where housing could be built, such as infill, vacant lots in dense neighborhoods or shopping centers.
"One of my themes [is] we could build (above) shopping centers," she said. "All are one floor with big parking lots not used 24-7. We could build housing over these" that could be accessed with exterior stairways.
City officials could meet with shopping center owners and indicate the city's desire to build housing. Shopping center parking lots could also be used, Conner added. The parking lots offer a lot of open space suitable for housing.
Conner would also like to see traffic and parking issues addressed in the next several years to make sure the council is "not creating a city that is all about parking."
"All of us need to figure out how we can get ourselves out of our cars. What will it take to walk more and drive less?" Conner wondered.
One idea might be to work with Humboldt State University officials to discourage first-and second-year students from bringing cars to Humboldt County. Conner would like to see HSU make it extremely difficult for freshman and sophomore students to get parking permits.
With HSU's increasing enrollment, parking is becoming a premium on city streets, Conner said.
"It's having a huge impact on our town and every neighborhood near the university," she said.
THE CANDIDATE: David Meserve, 53, carpenter, high school teacher,
owns his own construction business. He is chairman of the Arcata
Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission and founder of the Redwood
Peace and Justice Center.
If you've walked around the Arcata Plaza on a Friday evening, or passed by any of the anti-war protests on the Plaza, you've probably seen Meserve. He's definitely a familiar face to the City Council.
Meserve, founder of the Redwood Peace and Justice Center, has been active in city issues for the past six years. He has worked to get the council to pass peace proclamations, he unsuccessfully fought against the ordinance that prevents people from sitting on sidewalks and he is the chairman of the Arcata Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Commission.
Now Meserve wants to add councilman to his list of accomplishments.
"We need to live up to city's image of having a cutting-edge political system," Meserve said.
What Meserve would like to see is Arcata join its brethren, cities like Burlington, Vt., and Boulder, Colo., in building its own electrical plant -- a city-owned utility.
"Some members of the council have talked about it, but its hard for a small city to do (in part because of the cost) but not impossible," Meserve said. "Why not put solar panels on city hall as a statement that we support it?"
Meserve said an incredible amount of energy and money has been wasted in Arcata on overenforcement of victimless crimes -- specifically, the anti-sitting ordinance, marijuana laws, laws pertaining to public gatherings and smoking on the Plaza.
Since the retirement of Arcata Police Chief Mel Brown, the focus of law enforcement has changed, Meserve said.
"Now there is more a feeling of enforcing the law and showing `we mean business,' and that creates an adversarial attitude," he said.
Meserve also wants to open up the public process. One idea would be to include a city issue or question with each customer's water bill. Utility customers could send the questionnaire back to the city with their payment. It would give people a feeling that they have some voice in their government.
He'd also like to make it easier for citizens to get local initiatives on the ballot by lowering the number of required signatures. Meserve also believes there should be more debate between the council and the public during council meetings.
"There should be a secondary feedback period, where a spokesman for a group can speak. It's frustrating for people trying to be part of the public process and the council misunderstands what was said," Meserve said. "It's just a matter of changing council rules. It would be a relatively simple (thing) to do."
But Meserve also believes in adhering to a strict two-to three-minute time limit for public comments so that meetings don't get out of hand.
Meserve doesn't shy away from his stands.
"I have a lot of respect for Jim Test and Elizabeth Conner, but they are not saying what I think they believe in their hearts. I am not afraid to say marijuana should be decriminalized, I am not afraid to say we should actively spend money to have our own utility here, I'm not afraid to say we need more democracy on the council, even if it takes a little more time at meetings. If you say the imaginative things people will be inspired."
THE CANDIDATE: Carl Pellatz, 57, Arcata resident since 1959;
volunteer firefighter for 35 years; member of the Board of Directors
of the Humboldt Crabs since 1995, named president of the board
this year; served on the Arcata City Council from 1992 to 1996;
was mayor in 1995 and 1996.
Pellatz of late has been more closely associated with the Humboldt Crabs baseball team than with local politics. He has been on the team's board since 1995 and was president of the board last season.
But Pellatz is no newcomer to the Arcata political scene. He served on the City Council from 1992 to 1996. He was also mayor from 1995 to 1996. So why would Pellatz want to re-enter the political fray after a six-year absence?
"Arcata is a pretty diverse town and I don't think the current council is really paying attention or respecting some of the voices that are here in the town," Pellatz said. "Those people deserve to be listened to; that's one of the reasons I am running again."
He said the image of the current council is that if a person's views don't jibe with the majority, they are not really considered.
"That's not the proper way to run a city government in a small city," Pellatz said.
Another major issue for Pellatz is affordable housing -- or the lack thereof.
"It severely concerns me that we continue to see that the young married families with children are having a difficult time buying a home in Arcata," he said. "It bothers me that we have not been able to do something positive about that."
Pellatz, a vocal opponent of the city's recycling efforts, wants to look at the way the city handles that program. He says curbside recycling is simply not a good use of city funds.
"Curbside recycling is a failure. We are spending $180,000 to $200,000 a year to pick up recycling, " he said.
Another effort that makes little economic sense to Pellatz is the city's repeated attempts to place restrictions on businesses.
"We see government legislating things (such as) the cap on restaurants; and (the city is) looking at a cap on retail stores. Some of that kind of frightens me," he said.
While city officials talk about limiting businesses in Arcata, no one is talking about the blue-collar worker who can't afford upscale shops, Pellatz said.
"We leave them out; we are telling them you can't shop in Arcata anymore, you have to go to McKinleyville or Eureka," he said. "We need to look to being able to provide retail [items] for everyone in our community."
If residents have to leave town to shop, that means Arcata loses out on sales tax revenue, too, Pellatz said.
Pellatz is worried that the city's budget could become a target as state budget analysts try to balance a $25 billion deficit.
"I am hearing the same footsteps as I did in 1992 when I was on the council [the last time the state was in a budget crisis of this magnitude]. Until the state says they have balanced the budget, all cities are threatened with having to rethink their budgets," he said. "I hope I'm wrong."
THE CANDIDATE: Cynthia Savage, 47, an Arcata native, is executive
director of the Post-Adoption Services Project in Arcata, general
manager of Adoption Horizons, an adoption agency, and a teacher
at Eureka's Studio of Dance Arts.
Savage is an Arcata native. She was born and raised here, her grandfather, Ralph T. Davis, was on the City Council and planning commission, and her uncle was the assistant fire chief. Three generations of her family live in Arcata.
Savage views herself as a local voice in the campaign.
"I read about a person's vision for Arcata, but I don't know who's vision (it is)," she said. "I wouldn't say (it's) my vision for Arcata. When people are creating a vision for Arcata, where is that coming from, who is putting input into that?"
Savage, who has never before sought public office, came close to missing the filing deadline for the election. She didn't file her candidacy papers until literally the 11th hour.
Unlike the other candidates who have been active in city politics, Savage was drawn to the race because of what she saw happening to Redwood Park.
"I was very upset at how the park had deteriorated. I felt compelled to write the council about it," she said "There was lots of damage to the area, it looked like gypsy park. Families wouldn't use the park. It was alarming; I had no idea the park had deteriorated to such extent."
Savage said she would base her decisions on common sense and not on political affiliations or special interests. Too often special interests guide what happens at city hall, she said.
What she wants is to make sure that every council decision benefits the city and not a special interest group.
Savage said she is learning about the political process. Unlike Meserve or Anderson, Savage believes the City Council's focus should be on Arcata. She questions the need for a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
Instead the city needs to focus on matters at hand, maintain infrastructure, keep the Plaza safe and clean, and preserve the marsh. The relationship between Humboldt State University and Arcata needs to be beneficial to both entities, she said. She regularly attends performances at HSU's CenterArts and believes it is a treasure for the community. But she also believes that students need to learn to be respectful of Arcata, whether it is throwing loud parties or obeying traffic rules.
And unlike some of her opponents who advocate decriminalization of marijuana or who actively endorse medical marijuana use, Savage believes marijuana is a gateway drug.
"To me it's an illegal drug. When I get a prescription I go to a pharmacy," she said. "People use (marijuana) as an excuse to medicate themselves. I don't think that is right."
THE CANDIDATE: Jim Test, 57, mayor of Arcata, is seeking a third
term on the City Council and is co-owner of Bug Press, a commercial
Test sits back in his chair at Bug Press, where he has been co-owner for about 28 years. He appears relaxed and confident as he seeks re-election to his third four-year term on the council.
Test, chosen by his fellow councilmembers as mayor for the past three years, has no desire to leave office yet. He wants to stay and see his bicycle master plan come to fruition. And, like Conner, he wants to be there when the city finalizes its land use and development code.
A majority of residents are beginning to recognize the need for the bike plan, he said.
Test has heard all the complaints about the city and its problems.
"I say even with problems we are still the most popular community in the county," he said.
And there is a misconception about the city's role, both in job development and in the way it treats its citizens.
"Cities do not create jobs. They can help by making land available," Test said. "One way Arcata helps industry is by making sure we have land available."
The city has purchased land, built an industrial park and established an economic development corporation to assist businesses and industries looking to locate here.
"There is a government infrastructure to help people start businesses," Test said.
The city has also bought lots to build low-income housing, and has a first-time buyers program in place to help families buy their first home. So far about 20 families have taken advantage of the program, Test said.
Arcata hasn't really changed much in 30 years. Although battle lines have long been drawn between conservative and liberal factions, the city has remained pretty much the same, Test said.
Because of that sentiment, Test doesn't see any pressing issues facing this group of candidates. And the issues being raised, such as decriminalizing marijuana use, are not city issues, Test said -- demonstrating his understanding of the limits of municipal power.
"Cities can't decriminalize marijuana, its up to (the federal government)," he said. "If (the government) decriminalizes it, it doesn't mean you can sit around and smoke it."
Test does support California's Proposition 215, which allows marijuana use for medical purposes.
"We'll make sure the city is supporting it," he said.
Test would also like to close the Plaza down to vehicle traffic. But he is a realist. He recognizes that closing the Plaza to all traffic would be difficult. If it were a perfect world, he'd close it tomorrow, but businesses owners are always anxious whenever talk of closing the Plaza surfaces, Test said.
In order to close the Plaza, there needs to be a heavy concentration of people living nearby, Test said.
Test said he hasn't shied away from criticism. While the council has been criticized for not allowing enough citizen participation, it has also been criticized for allowing too many people to speak.
Test said the criticism has more to do with the way the council votes than with allowing public debate.
"What people mean is that we don't vote in the way they'd like us to," he said.
Claims that the council is out of touch with the residents doesn't make sense either, Test said.
"It's hard to be out of touch; you live here, talk to people. It's hard to be anonymous," he said.
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