October 26, 2006
on the cover:
A.W. Ericson "postcard" of Eureka's Carson Mansion,
It was a gorgeous Indian Summer weekend on the Humboldt County coast, and back in Henderson Center the old Eureka was on display. Gearhead kids rushed up Harris in their tricked-out autos. The fix-it customers at Shafer's Hardware bantered with the teenage cashiers. At the liquor store, the clerk warily conducted business with a broken-down woman (booze, speed or both). The blocks around St. Bernard's echoed with the cheers of high-school football fans.
This is Deep Eureka, Eureka profundo: hopelessly square, stubbornly insular and probably doomed. Its moorings are gone. The economic forces that created it no longer exist. Already it's been driven out of Old Town. You can count the number of establishments that cater to it there on one hand, starting and maybe ending with Roy's. Downtown is next. Once, The Flour Garden was a lonely outpost of counterculture on Fifth Street; now that thoroughfare is dotted with Starbuck's, chain stores and cheap eateries. Heuer's and Marcelli's are still there, serving the same honest food they've served forever, but for how much longer?
Eureka was a small town not so long ago. Twenty years ago, the two pulp mills across the bay made the place smell unbearably foul all day and night, and that left the town trapped in its own little petri dish. Few people who didn't live there already would even consider moving there. But the smell is mostly gone, and Eureka is on its way to becoming an actual city, probably one of the smallest cities in America worthy of the name. It has a downtown and it has a few neighborhoods, each with a different character. It has businesses and cultural institutions that serve a broad swath of territory. It is diverse -- not racially diverse, really, but culturally diverse. It has media, government, capital, even a sort of homegrown aesthetic. Most importantly, it now has politics.
Back in the glory days of the pulp mills, the good old boys ran the place more or less unquestioned. There was the City Council, and there were the people with money and power. Sometimes they were one and the same; sometimes they just belonged to the same social circle. If someone had a beef, that someone was invited to tell it to the wall. As recently as the year 2000, the council, in chambers, shut down people who wanted to speak to the question of whether or not to fire the city manager, Harvey Rose. (He was fired.)
Those days are already gone. But how far has Eureka come?
The City Council members currently on the ballot -- Virginia Bass, Mary Beth Wolford, Jeff Leonard and Mike Jones -- are not of the good-old-boy era. (Well, except for Jones, perhaps.) They have ideas of their own. They accept the fact that not everyone is like them, and that others should have a voice. Of them, all but Wolford grew up in Eureka. Still, if they're at all concerned with setting themselves apart from the good old boys, there's been a couple of occasions when they've failed.
The first and most obvious example came in October 2004, when the council members listed above suddenly derailed a long-anticipated effort to develop a master plan for the 30-odd-acre parcel on land known as the Balloon Track, located near Old Town and the bay. The move meant that the city would lose a great deal of power to shape what eventually will be built on the site, and that abdication of power left a lot of people understandably angry. They had received a letter from Union Pacific asking for the master plan project to be killed, as a potential buyer didn't want it to go forward. At least some of them knew that the potential buyer was Rob Arkley, the town's richest man.
Nowadays, they have plausible, heartfelt justifications for abandoning the planning process. Leonard says, and said at the time, that with a developer in play, a master plan (which in his mind only served to attract potential developers) was no longer necessary. Others say that their goal is to rid the city of an undeveloped eyesore as quickly as possible. Regardless, if the whole deal smacks of back-room politics to some -- if it leads to the conclusion that these candidates are "in Arkley's pocket" -- they have only themselves to blame. And when shady groups like the so-called "Humboldt Business Council" start running ads urging people to vote for these candidates, as it did last weekend, they'll have to accept that the impression is strengthened.
Another example, perhaps even more telling, was the kerfuffle over Mayor Peter La Vallee's appointments to the city's planning commission -- its second most powerful body of government -- in late 2004 and early 2005. La Vallee had tapped first Xandra Manns and then Robert Fasic to fill a vacant seat on the commission. Both Manns and Fasic were eminently qualified. If you looked solely at their resumes, you'd think the city would be crazy to turn either of them away. But the council members listed above, in various combinations, refused to approve their appointments to the commission, leading to a months-long, high-profile standoff that became an advertisement for municipal dysfunction. Why did the council reject Manns and Fasic? It's hard to escape the conclusion that they looked at more than Manns' and Fasic's resumes -- they looked at their dress, clothes and bearing, and what they saw didn't jibe with what their idea of what Eureka should be. They saw hippies, in a word, and that was grounds enough for disqualification.
These are some of the things that fuel the opposition to Wolford, Leonard, Jones and Bass, the latter of whom is challenging La Vallee for mayor. And they're the kinds of things, too, that fuel the enthusiastic support for La Vallee and for Larry Glass, Ron Kuhnel and Nan Abrams, the three primary contenders for the city council seats up for election. These candidates quite plainly and proudly are not of the good-old-boy network. None of them grew up in Eureka. They may shop at Shafer's or eat at Roy's on occasion, but they are not a part of Eureka profundo. They represent what much of the rest of Eureka wants the city to become.
But Deep Eureka eyes them with suspicion, and in doing so it has a point. It's not that the above candidates sneer at "regular" Eurekans, or that they're "anti-business" -- both charges are ludicrous. It's that the new boss, if it comes to that, is simply the flip side of the old boss. That point -- that La Vallee, Glass, Kuhnel and Abrams represent a new good-old-boys network, a nascent left-to-left-of-center political machine -- is just a little bit harder to explain away.
You can start with the basics. Their campaigns are coordinated; they all work together. They've all endorsed each other. To one degree or another, they've all cautiously expressed their skepticism of the Arkleys' Marina Center project for the Balloon Track, or disapproval at the city process that led us to this juncture. (Glass is the exception, perhaps -- he helped form a group, Citizens for Real Economic Growth, or CREG, that has been loudly critical of the Marina Center plan, though the candidate himself has tempered his public stance somewhat.) They've all been endorsed by the same lefty groups -- Local Solutions, the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, the Eureka Greens. They have all been generously funded by Bill Pierson, owner of Pierson Building Center and therefore a man who would stand to lose considerably if the Marina Center, with its Home Depot big-box anchor store, comes to pass. (As has Supervisor Bonnie Neely, who is also up for reelection and has received a similar set of endorsements; her challenger, former Eureka Mayor Nancy Flemming, is likewise associated with the ticket headed by Bass. See "Supes On," the Journal's May 18 cover story, for a rundown of the candidates.)
Finally, there's the fact that Richard Salzman, the Trinidad political consultant and sworn enemy of Arkley, has played a large role in shaping the ticket. Salzman personally recruited Nan Abrams to run against Mike Jones in the Fifth Ward, as Abrams herself verified last week. La Vallee's campaign hired him this year. He works with Glass in the CREG effort, and, according to Glass, helped to remind Maria Hershey, a potential vote-splitter in the First Ward, to drop out of the race by deadline. Before Ron Kuhnel officially announced his candidacy for the Third Ward, Salzman approached Randall Herzon, another potential candidate, and asked him to drop out. Herzon eventually accepted Salzman's logic -- that a divided vote would ensure that Jeff Leonard would be reelected -- but is still galled that Salzman would pressure him to withdraw. (In the absence of the thoroughly sensible proposal to adopt instant runoff voting, or at least a return to citywide primaries, such pre-election machinations are perhaps inevitable.)
What does all this signify? It's not that the candidates in question are slavishly loyal to Salzman, or even to Pierson. "You don't run for city office without getting calls from Richard Salzman," said Ron Kuhnel last week, and as he said it he looked genuinely weary of such calls. He keeps his campaign apparatus separate from that of Glass and Abrams, even if he does cooperate with them, because of his discomfort at being thought of as a member of a "slate." But turnabout is fair play, and people who accuse Bass, Wolford, Leonard and Jones of being mere tools of Rob Arkley should be prepared to answer similar charges against their own candidates.
What it finally amounts to, though, is growing pains. Eureka is becoming a city in the true sense of the word, and it's also developing true city politics -- interest groups battling each other for control, rather than hometown luminaries sent up to the council as a matter of routine. It's a sign of maturity. And on all sorts of matters currently facing the city -- from big ticket items like the Marina Center project, reform of the police department and economic development, all the way down to seemingly mundane matters like traffic -- what happens in this election is going to determine the course of Eureka's future for quite a few years to come.
Whether you're voting for the left-of-center candidate, the right-of-center candidate or the angry outsider, when you cast your vote for Eureka mayor you're voting for a figurehead. And that's the way it's supposed to be.
Under Eureka's somewhat unusual city charter, the mayor has very little power, apart from the power of the bully pulpit. The mayor runs the meetings of the City Council, acting as a sort of emcee, and can cast a tie-breaking vote when a matter the council deadlocks on a matter (usually because of one member is absent). Otherwise, the mayor is meant to act as a sort of ambassador, leaving policy to the City Council and city government's day-to-day operations to the city manager. The mayor meets with visiting dignitaries from other government agencies or business representatives, and is presumed to speak with the voice of the city.
Peter La Vallee (pictured at left), 57, a native of Detroit, Mich., was elected mayor four years ago in a razor-tight race against Cherie Arkley, a former City Council member and the wife of local developer/businessman Rob Arkley. He is the director of the Redwood Community Action Agency's Youth Services Bureau, and oversees programs aimed at helping at-risk children. A couple of weeks ago, as he went door-knocking to help get out the vote, he spoke about his accomplishments as mayor, and talked about why he thought he was the best candidate to take the city forward.
Most of all, he believes that he has contributed to the opening of City Council meetings to all residents, bringing good government to the city. In the past, he said, citizens coming to meetings to address the council felt unwelcome; now, a spirit of openness and inclusion governs the meetings.
"I really like getting people involved in city government," he said. "And the mayor really sets the tone for that."
As an example of that openness, he cited a phone message he had received from Cherie Arkley, who is leading the Marina Center project, after a City Council hearing on the subject. Though the Arkley family has made no secret of their distaste for him, he said that Cherie Arkley had appreciated his conduct of the hearing. "By the time I got home from that meeting, Cherie Arkley had left a message on my machine thanking me for the way I ran the meeting," he said. "I'm proud of that."
In his role as the city figurehead and principal representative to the business community, La Vallee said that he would continue to support local business and clean industrial development. He said he was "tickled" by Evergreen Pulp and the work that it has done to clean up the emissions from the old pulp mill across the bay, and supported the company wholeheartedly. He said that the city had done good work in streamlining its design review guidelines for builders and developers, and that work needed to continue. And he cited his membership on the North Coast Railroad Authority's board of directors and enthusiasm for port development as evidence of his work to bring new money into the economy.
"Let's keep and develop Eureka for the uniqueness it has," he said.
La Vallee has been endorsed by Rep. Mike Thompson, state Sen. Wes Chesbro, Assemblymember Patty Berg, Supervisors Bonnie Neely and John Woolley and Eureka Councilmember Chris Kerrigan. (See peterlavallee.org for a full list of endorsements.)
Virginia Bass (formerly Bass-Jackson), 44 (pictured at right), has served on the City Council for six years. She is from an old Eureka family -- her father, O.H. Bass, represented the town on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. She is a close friend of Cherie Arkley. Nowadays, she runs runs the family restaurant, O-H's Town House, a steak place at the foot of Sixth Street, where she discussed her reasons for running last week.
Bass said that she decided to make a run for mayor because she has become disturbed by the pessimistic perception of Eureka that she finds out in the community. "I've seen a greater deal of the `no' factor," she said. "We don't need to be seen as a community that just says `no.'" She said that she decided to run because as mayor, she would be in a better position to counter that perception than as a voting member of the City Council.
She said the most telling example of the `no' mentality came when Calpine, a large energy firm that has since gone bankrupt, made an initial proposal to locate a liquefied natural gas terminal on land owned by the city on the Samoa Peninsula back in 2004. The City Council held a hearing on the question at the Municipal Auditorium; over 1,000 people showed up, most of them criticizing the proposed deal. The company withdrew its offer shortly afterwards. "In the end, maybe it wasn't going to be a good fit for our community," Bass said. But she still thinks the company got an unduly poor reception, and that left a black mark on the city's reputation.
She said said that city needs "to adjust how we do business," to welcome investment with open arms and to do everything in the city's power to help retain Eureka businesses that are seeking to expand and grow. Economic expansion is one important key to solving the city's most pressing problems, she said, and she vowed to clean up the city's image in the business world.
"When we become a community where people want to be, our options open up," she said.
Bass has been endorsed by Supervisor Jill Geist, former supervisorial candidate Richard Marks, Eureka City Councilmember Mike Jones and businessman Harvey Harper, among others. (See virginiabassformayor.com for a full list of endorsements.)
A third candidate, Jerry Droz, is running a low-budget, independent campaign for the office. He has said that he is concerned with quality-of-life issues, and wants to see fewer halfway homes in the city. He blames such conditions partly on La Vallee, who he says contributes greatly to the problem through his work at the RCAA, and blames Bass for allowing the halfway homes to creep into the city while she has served on the council. At times he has become exasperated at the usual rules of decorum that prevail during political campaigns -- the police were called to the scene when he loudly interrupted a La Vallee press conference. For some time, he has called himself the "Acting Mayor of Eureka," and in interviews he has defended his appropriation of the title.
If the mayor is the city's public face, the City Council is its brains and its muscle. It sets city policy and it oversees the work done by city staff -- police, firefighters, city planners, engineers, public works employees, etc.
Again, the city charter's definition of the way council members are elected is rare and unusual, and bound to be confusing to newcomers. The city is divided into five districts, or "wards." Candidates for a seat on the council must run for the ward seat in which their home is located. However, the city at large votes for candidates from all of the wards. There are no primaries -- candidates for each seat compete for a plurality of votes
In long conversations with each of the candidates, the Journal asked each of them what they thought about two particular topics that are sure to eat up a lot of council time in the coming months, or years: the Marina Center Development and issues of morale, recruitment and reform at the Eureka Police Department.
Like the other incumbents up for reelection, Mary Beth Wolford, 74 (pictured at left), has served on the council for four years -- one full term. Wolford has represented Eureka's First Ward, which encompasses Old Town and the town's run-down West Side. A former educator in the Los Angeles area, since moving to the North Coast she has been a proponent of Old Town revitalization and historic preservation. She has served as executive director of the Humboldt Senior Resource Center. By nature, she's a booster of Eureka, and even has an official campaign song that sings the city's praises.
In an interview at Ramone's last weekend, Wolford defended her vote to kill the city's public planning study of the Balloon Track, which would have been partially funded by a grant from the county's Headwaters Fund. She said Rob and Cherie Arkley, who now own the property and are proposing a Home Depot-anchored development for the site, will have to go through similar hoops, and will be doing it with their own money.
"They were going to have to go through the same study, with private funds, that we were going to do with Headwaters money," she said. "I felt that it was not necessary to be duplicative of the process." Wolford said that if reelected, she would continue to watchdog the development, to make sure that the final proposal put forward by the developers would fit well into the community.
Wolford said that policing in the city has been managed decently, despite a staffing crisis at the Eureka Police Department (at one point, the city had seven vacant positions to fill). As an example, she cited the city's hiring of private security guards to patrol Old Town, which she said had been an effective program. But she acknowledged that salaries for the patrol officers needed to go up, and added that other innovative opportunities existed to help police the city. For instance, she said, she'd like to see the city offer low-interest loans to police officers who might be willing to live in the West Side.
The city is recruiting a new police chief, and she said that she would look to that new chief to provide some stability, to keep patrol officers interested in working in Eureka. "I feel that as a new leader is hired, that leader will be able to bring in his own ideas," she said.
Larry Glass, 58 (pictured at left), has operated The Works, his record store, in Eureka since the '70s. He served as president and executive director of Eureka's Business Improvement District, and was for many years a member of the board of directors of the Northcoast Environmental Center. Over tea at Old Town Coffee and Chocolates, he talked about why he decided to challenge Wolford for the council seat this time.
He said that his principal reason for running did not have to do with the Marina Center, as many had suspected. Despite his involvement with Citizens for Real Economic Growth -- an anti-Marina Center group -- he is mostly running on a platform of good government and public safety. "That's the reason municipalities exists," he said of policing. "Everything else comes after."
Glass said that he thought that additional monies could be found within the city budget to fund raises for police officers and to hire more cops. As an example, he cited the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the city has spent studying the extension of Waterfront Drive, a project that the state Coastal Conservancy has frowned on. And he hoped that a "charismatic" new chief could bring some stability back to the department.
As regards the Marina Center development, Glass said that he had two main issues with the proposal. The first, he said, was that the current council (as well as past councils) should have demanded a full cleanup of pollutants on the Balloon Track site, and that an impermeable "cap" of the site, as the developers propose, is an unacceptable solution. Second, he objects to the way that the City Council has handled the issue to date. "Derailing the public process was a mistake, and it's one in a long line of mistakes the current council has made," he said.
Glass added that he believes the council should take a different tack when it comes to economic development. "This town's always been looking for the big bang, and we've passed up the small opportunities," he said. "I believe in starting small and building results with more sustainable growth." And he said that he hoped to get the Council to look at amending the city charter, so that candidates are elected only by voters in the ward they serve, rather than the entire city.
Tish Wilburn, 71, an unaffiliated candidate, is also running for the First Ward council seat. She's a Libertarian, a former journalist and an outspoken woman with a to-hell-with-them-all attitude. She told the Times-Standard that her main function on the City Council would be to provide "comic relief."
Ron Kuhnel, 66 (pictured at left), has been a member of the Eureka Planning Commission for four years. Before he and his wife moved to Eureka full-time eight years ago, they lived in Sacramento, where he had a long career in California government, including service as the state's Chief Information Officer. He is retired, and is taking courses for a master's degree in sociology through Humboldt State University's Over 60 program. He is also president of the Eureka Heritage Society.
"I learned an awful lot about how government works," Kuhnel said a couple of weeks ago of his time in Sacramento, and he believes that he can use that experience to better the community. He said that there was "not much" wrong with his opponent, incumbent Jeff Leonard, but that he believed he could take the city farther down the path ahead of it.
One of Kuhnel's four campaign planks is public safety, and though he acknowledged that times are tough for the police department, he praised the EPD officers who have stuck it out. "I really do think we have a police department that tries its best under very difficult circumstances," he said. However, he said, the city does need to raise police salaries, attract a talented new chief and provide better training in order to avoid catastrophe in "extremely complicated" situations such as the standoff with Cheri Lyn Moore last April.
The City Council's abandonment of the Balloon Track master plan study "showed poor judgment," he said, but it wasn't one of his main concerns: "I think it's a deal, but it's not a big deal. That's not why I'm running for office. I think this election should be about the long-term future of the city." He said he was more troubled by the back-and-forth between the mayor and the City Council over appointments to the planning commission. As for the Marina Center proposal itself, he said he was basically untroubled. "If the Environmental Impact Report is a quality document, and the City Council insists that it be so, and the preponderance of evidence shows this is a good zoning decision, there's no reason in the world why it shouldn't be built," he said.
In his campaign, Kuhnel is also championing the idea of forming city-sponsored neighborhood associations, which he believes would bring people into city government and allow the city to respond more effectively to their concerns.
Jeff Leonard, 42 (pictured at left), a Eureka native and the incumbent in the race, is a worker's compensation insurance adjuster for State Fund. He serves as the city's liaison to the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, a coordinated effort between cities and the county to develop the region's energy infrastructure.
In an interview at the Lost Coast Brewery last week, Leonard acknowledged that the police department has had more than its share of problems lately, and said that the council had addressed them well in recent months -- new officers had been recruited, and the department now stands only one officer short of a full complement (though several of the new recruits were still being trained.) He said that the problem was principally one of retention, and that a new chief had to be someone who could address the problem of morale. "From my point of view, the selection of the new police chief is a critical component," he said. "This new chief has to be someone who comes in there and creates a team environment, so people want to stay here in the community." He said that the department's new cooperation with the county's Mental Health Department was a positive sign, and pointed toward the kind of training opportunities that the department should be pursuing.
On the Balloon Track, Leonard, like Wolford, said that he believed the plan was redundant once it became clear that a private party was already looking at the site. "We went from attracting a developer to having one attracted," he said. He has since been a proponent of the development, arguing that the deal would lead to a speedy clean-up of the site and its return to productivity.
But the project is still in its initial phase, he said, and nothing will be decided until all the papers have been filed. "All these things in concept sound great," he said. "But my job is to make the decision on the last day." He added that he was among those that had pushed for more open space to be added to the design -- a request that has since been accommodated -- and that he'd continue to push the developers to include plans for transportation between the project and Old Town.
His work at the energy authority, Leonard said, led him to realize that the area of alternative energy was a natural fit for Humboldt County, and one of the areas that we should look to for new economic development opportunities. He praised the innovative work being done by DG Energy Solutions, the San Diego power company that bought the old Fairhaven Power Plant, and said he believed that Humboldt County could attract many more such businesses.
Mike Jones, 59 (pictured at left), is the back-to-basics representative of the Fifth Ward, a position he has held for four years. By day, he is a broker with the Penfold-Leavitt Insurance Agency. Jones said earlier this week that if he is reelected, his primary focus going forward in the next four years will be traffic. He'd like to see city staff that work on traffic and circulation issues to prepare a sort of "State of the City" report that could be delivered to the council. And he said that his number one goal would be to get a stop sign installed at a corner near his home, something he has been unable to accomplish as of yet.
As far as problems with the police department go, Jones said, the city of Eureka is up against some powerful obstacles -- not the least of which is our less-than-desirable weather. That, plus the comparatively low salaries offered by the department mean that there are natural impediments to recruiting and retaining officers. Also, there's more crime in the city than elsewhere. "We've got county-seat problems," he said, alluding to meth, gangs and the other social issues that come with urban life. "We're at a crossroads of development." Still, he said, the council has been doing a good job with the resources it has, and he lauded the California Highway Patrol for agreeing to step in and help patrol the city for traffic violations for a few months earlier in the year.
He had every confidence, he said, that the Arkleys have the resources and the will to build a worthwhile development on the Balloon Track site. He said that the environmental clean-up proposed by the Arkleys looked to be a good deal for the city. "They're willing to do it, and they're willing to do it quickly -- not diddle-fart around," he said.
Jones said that like Virginia Bass, he was disappointed at the reception that the energy company Calpine got when they proposed a liquefied natural gas terminal in Humboldt Bay. He said that their pullout meant that all the study and development work that the company would have done, regardless of whether or not they eventually built the terminal, would have been of great use to the city. "We could have had a great study, there," he said. "It could have been on our shelves. But people were so paranoid that a study means we buy the project. It doesn't mean that at all."
Traffic is also on the mind of Nan Abrams, 59 (pictured at left), the woman running against Jones for the Fifth Ward seat -- traffic and responsive government. (She first ran for the seat eight years ago.) Abrams is a vocational counselor with the county, specializing in welfare-to-work cases, and like Glass, she has served on the board of directors of the Northcoast Environmental Center. She will be retiring from her job early next year, she said.
While out campaigning, she met a group of people on Grotto Street who told her that they had been trying for years to get a stop sign at a dangerous intersection in their neighborhood reconfigured. But they had been unable to get any response from the city, Abrams said. "It wasn't that they got a no -- it was that they got no answer at all." She helped the group form a neighborhood association, she said, and is pressuring the city to hear the citizens' complaints.
Traffic is also one of her concerns about the Marina Center project as it stands. "It wouldn't be at the top of my list of good ideas," she said about the proposed development, but she acknowledged that it was not her place to decide what would be built on the site. She did say, though, that as a council member she would push for a complete clean-up of the site, rather than the "capping" proposal, and she lamented the fact that the city abandoned its proposed master plan.
"This has got to be a public process," she said. "I do not begrudge the Arkleys their money, but I cannot tolerate their arrogance."
Abrams said that she wanted to see the reinstitution of neighborhood policing in Eureka, and she hoped that the city could find some money to raise officers' salaries. She criticized the current council for letting the situation at the police department deteriorate on its watch: "It's like they're out of touch," she said. "I wonder why they've allowed the police department to go so short-handed for so long?"
Abrams said that one of her principal efforts if she is elected would be to get the city's redevelopment agency, which is headed by members of the council, to invest more of its money into the West Side, rather than focusing all its efforts on Old Town. She said that addressing the issue of blight in those neighborhoods could help solve the crime and other problems in that area, as well as generate business in the area.
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