by BOB DORAN and JUDY HODGSON
ARCATA IS A PROGRESSIVE CITY. The City Council three decades ago backed a fledgling recycling center, long before recycling was fashionable. Later the council stood alone in court when it filed suit against -- and eventually killed -- an expensive regional wastewater treatment plant. Instead it built an innovative system that cleans up the city sewage and runs it through a marsh, providing some of the most spectacular and unusual man-made bird habitat in the world that, by the way, also rears fingerling salmonids.
Bike lanes? Mass transit? You bet. Recreation? The city helped keep a community pool open year-round and built the first and only skateboard park in the county.
A first-time homeowners program? Yes, one with no loan defaults. Managed growth? Open space? Preserving agricultural lands? Of course. A city-owned-and-managed forest that cuts timber four times slower than the trees are growing earned Arcata the distinction of being the first municipality in the country with a certified "Smart Wood" sustainable forestry program. And where do the proceeds from the harvest go? To more recreation.
The city recently adopted Arcata General Plan 2020, a vision for the future that will govern growth over the next two decades, purchased land to expand the marsh and wildlife sanctuary and has been buying up critical creek rights-of-ways for environmentally sensitive flood control.
In addition, with its industrial park filled to capacity, the city will soon embark on its first major expansion. The park has been so successful it recently lured O&M Manufacturing Inc. away from Eureka because that city had no properly zoned and sized parcel.
These accomplishments and more have landed Arcata on a lot of "most desirable" cities lists. The Utne Reader listed the town as one of the top 10 sustainable cities in the country. Earlier this year, Time rated Arcata -- with its clean air and water, mild climate, low crime rate and access to good health care -- as one of six great small cities in which to live out your retirement years. The Chamber of Commerce had its phone ringing off the hook.
So with all this success, what do City Council wannabes have to complain about come election time?
Plenty. And topping the list is an item that should sound familiar to Eurekans -- that the current council is aloof (some say arrogant) and doesn't listen to the public.
There are three seats up this go-round, two held by incumbents Bob Ornelas and Connie Stewart, who is serving as mayor. The third seat is being vacated by Jennifer Hanan, who has endorsed candidates Dwain Goforth, Michael Machi and Susan Brinton.
The incumbent's most vocal critic is Donn R.J. Filbert whose campaign literature declares "Dump Stewart and Ornelas!"
"I think Stewart, Ornelas and (Jim) Test should all go. Unfortunately Test isn't up for re-election," he said.
Filbert, a retiree, calls himself a "street activist," a socialist and a "fiscal conservative with a liberal social agenda." He dismisses the grant-funded expansion of the marsh and the expansion of the city's industrial park as too costly.
"We're not rich. My trouble is these bastards won't live within their budget as you and I have to."
He opposes the city's sustainable forestry plan and says no trees should be cut. Period. Filbert is also against the proposed utility tax -- another hot topic -- and thinks the position of city manager should be abolished, not that he has anything personal against the new city manager, Dan Hauser.
"I think its a dereliction of duty on the part of the council to delegate city management chores," he said.
Michael Machi, a Coast Guard veteran who carves and sells wood bowls at craft fairs, has been busy knocking on doors, appealing directly to moderates, conservatives, Republicans and anyone else who feels disenfranchised by the council.
"I'm frustrated at their (the council's) lack of openness. They think they know best. If you don't agree with them you are ignored," he said. "Certainly there is a lack of balance.
"Having walked over half of Arcata, the issue that keeps coming up over and over is the transients on the Plaza, that and getting back to basics as far as the infrastructure ... fixing the roads. There's a vast difference between what people in the neighborhoods think as opposed to what's happening on the council."
Machi, who identifies himself as a moderate, feels that he would add balance.
"When you have four or five people on the council who are all on one side, any kind of compromise they are going to make is still in the liberal area. They're just compromising on how liberal it will be, whereas if you have someone in the middle or on the conservative side, then you get very different ideas."
"The perception in the community is that there's a clique running the city," said candidate Susan Brinton, a family assistant coordinator for the Humboldt Senior Resource Center. "I think there's been too much division. That bothers me. People have taken sides. Each councilperson should come to the council as an independent thinker, get together with their own ideas, and then compromise."
In her campaign literature Brinton quotes from the General Plan's vision statement which she says gave her "this warm, cozy, happy feeling. Some of it is pie in the sky, but it's a vision and that's what visions are. For me the issue is what do we want the city to look like, what kind of residents do we want here, where is the city headed?"
Ron Hagg, a candidate who commutes to Hoopa High School where he is a counselor, said the council is "pretty OK," but he adds, "Sometimes they don't ask the hard questions."
He said he feels the most important issue is taxes. "We need to have sustained, reliable funding for the city," he said. "That could be done with sales tax." He doesn't suggest looking for new retailers, but he wants the city to take a stand with the state and demand a larger cut.
When candidate Dwain Goforth, a computer programmer, says the council doesn't listen, he speaks from experience. Goforth was on the Planning Commission when the county wanted to use a parcel on Samoa Boulevard as a temporary waste transfer station. Goforth voted against it and the commission rejected the project. When the item was brought before the council on appeal, the commission was overruled. Later, when Goforth's appointment came up for renewal, the council dropped him.
Goforth sees "open government" as a key issue.
"I've been disappointed lately [that] we're not working together. The council will have their minds made up and will not give enough respect to other opinions.
"That doesn't mean I disagree with them. I share the same opinions as much of the majority -- I'm just as liberal as Connie and Jim and just as radical as Bob -- but sometimes I don't think they pay attention to anyone else."
Goforth said, "The most important issue is growth and how we grow. ... We've reached the stage where almost all of our land is marked and determined for this use or that use. We're running out of land and how we accommodate both people and our quality of life is critical."
Ornelas, the first Green Party member elected to the council, is known to friends and enemies alike as "Bad Bob" for his blunt honesty and a tendency toward off-hand remarks.
How does he respond to allegations that the council doesn't listen to the public?
"We have a lot of citizen interest and a lot of citizen involvement. If anything we err on the side of listening to people for so long that it hampers the decision-making process. ... We have some very vocal critics who have accused us of all kinds of things, criticism (that) borders on libel."
Ornelas defends the council's record. "Our economic development strategy has become the county strategy. ... We look at the natural environment and at the human environment when we decide what's appropriate for our area.
"We've expanded Arcata's sewage treatment facility -- the marsh and wildlife sanctuary. We're acquiring wetlands and open space on a massive scale. Our first-time homebuyer's program has been incredible, we have zero default. We have the highest home prices in the county because we have the safest streets and a higher quality of life than other communities.
"We were the first community to have a medical marijuana ordinance that stayed intact. Our program with licensing, a picture ID system and protection of patients has served as a model for several California counties.
"The roundabouts have cut serious accidents on Old Arcata Road down to nothing. And with a limited budget we're resurfacing roads as best we can."
Like Ornelas, Connie Stewart feels the accusation of a failure to listen is much ado about nothing. After all, she points out, this is the council that did away with the three-minute limit on public comment.
"We've done so many things over the last four years, a lot is the culmination of 20 years of dreams. We finished the community center project, and we certified the community forest, which is a huge accomplishment. We've had people come from all over the country and all over the world to see what we're doing in our forest.
"When Home Depot and Lowe's, the Home Depot-equivalent in Canada, said that they weren't going to take old growth any more, it sent a lot of timber companies into a `Hey, what do we do now?' mode. A lot of them have come and toured the community forest to find out what we're doing and what it means to have certified sustainable wood. The importance of what the city has done is that we are spreading a philosophy of sustainability.
"We have purchased the Hunt property next to the Arcata Marsh to expand the marsh project with an even greater emphasis on wildlife. We have focused on purchasing creek right-of-ways so that we can do flood control in an environmental way. Our urban creek philosophy is one that's spreading throughout the state.
"One of the biggest things we've completed, with a lot of public input and a lot of hard work by the Planning Commission, is the Arcata General Plan 2020. We're building industrial parks to bring in long-term jobs and not just focusing on retail, even though sales tax is what fills a city's coffers, not industrial jobs. We are elected by a progressive community that allows us to do these things."
Stewart says that the roots of this progressive thinking cut across party lines.
"There's a myth that a liberal council took over in the '70s and that's why we protect the environment. I don't think that's true. In the '50s the Community Forest was protected by a much more conservative council, many of whom were registered Republicans. They saw the importance of saving it and we are blessed with their legacy.
"Progressive thought is not a Greens thing or a Democratic thing in Arcata, it's a way of life for everyone here."
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