Surrounded by supporters in the backroom of the Sea Grill after the first ballot tallies were released on election night, incumbent Eureka City Councilman Mike Newman said he was "guardedly optimistic" about his 14-point lead over challenger Kim Bergel. By the time the final tallies were released late that night, Newman's lead had dwindled to less than 2 percent — just 104 votes.
Nonetheless, Newman seemed to have dispensed of his guarded optimism when he took to Facebook the next day to thank supporters. "I am honored and looking forward to serve our wonderful city for another 4-years (sic)," Newman wrote. "We have a lot of work and challenges ahead of us and I encourage all of you to stay involved as we move forward ..."
It seems, however, that the race is far from over. According to Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich, at least 707 ballots — 236 provisional and 471 vote by mail — were turned into Eureka precincts on Election Day and remain uncounted. Additionally, she said 3,350 ballots came into the county elections office on Monday and Tuesday of election week that have yet to be sorted or counted. There's no telling how many of those late-arriving ballots are actually from Eureka voters and at play in the Newman-Bergel race. But if they are representative of the county's overall voter registration numbers, about 19 percent — 636 — would come from Eureka voters. With the uncounted ballots that arrived at the polls, that would potentially put 1,343 votes in play in Eureka's Ward 3 contest.
To take the lead, Bergel would need to win 53.89 percent of those. She took 54.13 of the vote at the polls on Election Day, but just 42.87 of the early vote-by-mail ballots.
But that math is speculative, based on the unknown number of Eureka ballots outstanding. The higher that number actually is, the better Bergel's chances of pulling a huge upset. Anything short of 1,200 uncounted Eureka ballots and Bergel's chances are probably slim to none.
Back in 2010, when Newman beat out Ron Kuhnel and Xandra Manns to take the council seat, 1,825 additional votes were tallied between the last election night report and when the final results were published three weeks later. Now, it should be noted that turnout was much higher in that election, with 49 percent of those registered casting ballots on election night versus just 39 percent this go around. Some might find it interesting, however, that in 2010 Newman took 45.97 percent of the early vote by mail ballots, 42.20 percent of the vote at the polls and 43.12 percent of the ballots tallied after Election Day.
For her part, Bergel said she remains hopeful and doesn't have any plans to concede the race until the final votes are tallied. But that might be awhile, according to Crnich, who said the elections office is still plodding through state-mandated audits that must be conducted before staff can even begin sorting and verifying the yet-to-be counted ballots. As noted above, 2010's final election results weren't released until 26 days after the polls closed.
If Bergel does pull off the improbable win, it would result in what we believe to be the first all-female city council in Eureka's history. After consulting with a couple local historians and Eureka City Clerk Pam Powell, all seem pretty sure five women have never governed Eureka together. (Under Eureka's form of government, the mayor isn't officially a member of the city council.)
A Bergel win would result in a council composed of Melinda Ciarabellini, Linda Atkins, Marian Brady, Bergel and Natalie Arroyo, who just handily beat incumbent Chet Albin to take the city's Ward 5 seat. Powell provided the Journal with the city's official council record, which dates back to 1955, and it looks like the closest the city's ever come to an all-female council was back in the 1990s, when four of five council seats were occupied by women. What exactly happened between when Eureka incorporated as a city in 1874 and when it began keeping official council records in 1955 isn't entirely clear, but nobody consulted by the Journal felt it likely the city was run by five women back then.
The Friendly City doesn't take too kindly to tax measures, as it turns out.
As voters throughout the county were busy approving a total of four tax proposals on their ballots — ushering in a new countywide sales tax, as well as new levies in Rio Dell and Blue Lake, and a tax extension in Eureka — Fortuna's electorate offered a resounding "no." According to the final Election Night tally, 63.49 percent rejected the measure, which would have introduced a 1-percent citywide sales tax to aid the city's hemorrhaging budget. The head-scratcher of it all is that back in May, when the city hired an outside consultant to do some polling, it reported that 65 percent of respondents said they would support the 1-percent sales tax hike.
So what happened?
Well, first it's unclear if the firm — Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates — targeted likely voters with its survey. Attempts to reach the firm were unsuccessful by the Journal's deadline, but a May 19 letter to the city council summarizing the firm's findings repeatedly references "survey respondents" and "residents," but makes no mention of likely voters. This is potentially a huge distinction, as the 40 percent of registered Humboldt County voters who actually show up on Election Day have proven a fickle bunch.
Second, the tax proposal met a pretty outspoken opposition, which wasn't the case with its counterparts elsewhere in the county. Additionally, that opposition was led by a number of popular former council members who lambasted the current council for poor fiscal management.
Mayor Doug Strehl said the whole situation is frustrating and disappointing, noting that none of the outspoken former council members showed up at the city's budget meetings or addressed their concerns to the council directly. Strehl noted that some of the decisions that led to the city's current state — it's seen general fund revenue increase 31 percent over the past decade while expenses have increased 60 percent, thanks in a large part to skyrocketing California Public Employee Retirement System contributions — were made on the former council's watch.
But that's all in the rearview mirror, Strehl said, emphasizing that the city needs to move forward. Since 2010-2011, the city has spent about $6 million from its reserves to bring budgets into balance. It faced a projected deficit of about $750,000 this year, on the heels of $500,000 deficits in the two prior years. With additional revenue now off the table, at least in the short term, Strehl said it's clear the council will have to make cuts. "Even if you hold an even keel with sales tax revenues every year, with the cost of business, you're actually going backwards," Strehl said. "It's clear we're going into next year with a deficit, so we're going to have to figure out which services to cut."
According to Fortuna City Manager Regan Candelario, that deficit is projected to be about $500,000 — or almost 10 percent of the city's general fund.