by Jessie Faulkner
The ho-hum election of three directors to the board of the McKinleyville Community Services District turned into a nail biter last month.
Conservative and pro-development incumbents, golf pro Don Harling and retired teacher Ed Estes, known as the old guard of the community, were expected to easily win re-election. But when the dust settled -- a full week after the voting -- Estes had been ousted and Harling barely hung on to third place, edging out one challenger only after the absentee ballots were counted.
The top vote getter was newcomer Jill Geist, a wastewater technician for the city of Arcata, known for her progressive views on planning. Geist garnered 1,258 votes. In second place was a popular retired fire chief, Ordell Murphy, considered a moderate, with 1,096 votes.
Harling, with a tally of 1,070, squeaked by independent insurance adjuster David Elsebusch by just 15 votes. Estes finished fifth with 871 followed by Jim Whaling with 741.
It wasn't exactly a revolution, but it was a nudge to the status quo in the community that in the last few years has seen a burst of housing and commercial development. While many old timers have welcomed the economic growth, others have watch in dismay as the main street, Central Avenue, turned into a strip of chain stores and fast-food restaurants.
The services district board is the sole local governmental body in the county's most populated unincorporated community. Its directors manage water and sewer systems, oversee recreation and parks. Recently a new branch library was built and dedicated.
Elsebusch, finishing just outside the winner's circle, asked for a manual recount by the county election's office. He questioned 11 ballots "with absolutely no marks on them" and the high percentage of voters who "undervoted," choosing fewer than two candidates for the three available seats.
Of the 2,303 ballots cast, 759 were marked for just one or two board candidates.
But unmarked ballots and so-called "undervoting" are common, said Lou Leeper, Humboldt County deputy registrar of voters. The recount, completed Nov. 20, confirmed her assessment.
Estes also questioned whether other candidates followed the provisions of the state election code. According to Estes, a county elections official handed out an incorrect list of rules. However, Leeper said to the best of her knowledge no incorrect guidelines had been provided.
He said only he and first-place finisher Geist reported the names of cash and in-kind donors above $100. The discrepancy, he said, prevented voters from knowing where candidates got their campaign funds -- a fact that should be available. Yet, a call to the elections office revealed that all of the board candidates except Jim Whaling filed the appropriate financial statements.
Estes said the issue is that the voters have a right to know where candidates are getting their campaign funds.
Estes' defeat will undoubtedly mean changes for the board. He often joined Harling, and Directors Joe Walund and Ben Shepherd, who were not up for re-election, to form a majority.
Before his death in August, Director Lewis Klein was often the lone voice of the community for slow growth, environmental protection and more aggressive planning. Often the 4-to-1 votes came only after intense, rancorous debates littered with calls for Robert's Rules of Order.
Newcomer Murphy said he does not want to join in further polarizing the community and he hopes Geist "won't be placed in the same position that Lewis was in."
Geist, struggling to describe the separation in the community, said it wasn't necessarily pro- vs. anti-development. She said it's more a question of those who've held the reins of power for years and those who want to climb aboard.
Her solid victory, Murphy's second-place finish and the close battle between Harling and Elsebusch for third may be a warning to those remaining.
"I think Don Harling has taken the message of the voters," she said. "People want to see the district responding."
Geist said she believed her support at the polls was not simply a transfer of allegiance from Klein's former backers.
"I appealed to a broad range of people. It wasn't about political standing, it was more about examining issues for what they were and making determinations on issues vs. making decisions on a political stance," she said.
"I think one of the things that this election shows is the district voters want to see accountability on the part of the district, they want to see response on the part of the district."
The lines of allegiance were drawn early in the election. The two incumbents' and challenger Murphy's signs were frequently grouped together. Geist and Elsebusch tended to choose the same locations.
Harling credited part of the race's tight results to the low voter turnout. An estimated 6,500 registered voters live within the boundaries of the district yet only 2,303 voted.
"I was surprised at the closeness of the race," he said. "I was also surprised at the lack of turnout. It's nice to have a large turnout of voters so you get a good representation of the community."
The incumbent also predicted that the board will work well together and welcomed Geist.
"She knows the wastewater systems from her job. That will give us an additional person on the board with expertise," he said.
Both Geist and Elsebusch are regular participants at the board meetings. Geist also drew some heat as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the McKinleyville Community Plan, a group of board-appointees working to implement revisions to the McKinleyville portion of the Humboldt County General Plan. She served on the Seismic Upgrade Rate Advisory Committee which was charged with coming up with ways to pay for seismic retrofit projects. Measure S, a water rate increase to cover that cost, was defeated by voters.
Geist, Murphy and Harling were sworn in Dec. 5.
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