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Enter the Backlash 

Here's a nearly infallible rule of thumb: When a lawsuit is launched with buttons and posters and emotional speechifying, it's safe to assume that there's more to the thing than a disagreement over the application of statute to facts. Such was certainly the case at Tuesday's rally for Citizens for a Better Eureka v. California Coastal Commission, which was filed in Humboldt County Superior Court late last week.

The posters proposed a few mottos for the suit, which alleges that the California Coastal Commission overstepped its authority when it pressed pause on a City of Eureka-approved cleanup plan for the Balloon Track in December. "Clean it Up Now!" read one. "Coastal Commission Should Butt Out!" read another. "30 Years of Blight is Enough." For the buttons, a simple, uniform, chantable slogan: "It's Just Wrong!"

As for the speechifying, roughly half of it was dedicated to the lawsuit itself. The other half danced around it, instead pointing directly toward the larger political issue that brought 50 or so citizens out to the 11 a.m. rally, including Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass, Councilmember Mike Jones and Harbor District Commissioner Ronnie Pellegrini. What was the larger issue? Not just their support for Rob Arkley's proposal to build Marina Center, a Home Depot-anchored office/retail development, on the site of Eureka's former rail yard, and their anger with the Coastal Commission for slowing it. That was certainly a big part of the theme, but the theme itself was bigger. It took in the loss of traditional Humboldt County industries, the need to replace them, a touch of xenophobia regarding "outsiders," the tendency of Humboldt County children to move elsewhere once they are grown and the political shift that the county has undergone in the last 10 years or so.

"We need to take our county back!" enthused one attendee, to cheers. "To take our community back!" This was shortly after Gary Bird, president of the ad hoc Citizens for a Better Eureka group, told everyone to pay close attention to the upcoming elections. Bird didn't name names, but it would have been hard to find someone in the crowd who didn't know that both Bass and Eureka City Councilmember Jeff Leonard, both Marina Center supporters, would be challenging Humboldt County Supervisor Bonnie Neely in the upcoming election. Neely, an Arkley antagonist, now serves as chair of the California Coastal Commission, and a loss to Bass or Leonard would remove her from that powerful position.

The rally attendees -- many of them lifelong Humboldt County residents, according to the show of hands requested from the podium -- had plenty of reason for cheer, both on the legal and the political fronts. The most immediate good news was that the conservative powerhouse Pacific Legal Foundation would be representing Citizens for a Better Eureka in the suit. The PLF, which has long ties to the Arkley family, is nothing to be trifled with. To simplify it greatly, their case is that the Coastal Commission has no right to review the cleanup plan, despite the fact that it includes the filling of wetlands, because the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has signed off on the plan and the city of Eureka has declared the site a nuisance. The commission can be expected to vigorously oppose this argument. But if the PLF thinks it has a case, then it probably has a case -- a winning case, as likely as not.

In the big picture, though, the suit, whether winning or not, will be a big boost for the political objectives of the Citizens for a Better Eureka, and for the wider pro-Marina Center community, and for Arkley himself. Taken by itself, without all the historical and political baggage that attaches to it, the Marina Center proposal is almost certainly more popular than unpopular amongst voters in the city of Eureka. Anti-Marina Center candidates for citywide office have tended to deemphasize the issue in their campaigns, and Neely would no doubt prefer to do the same. Now it will be impossible to avoid the matter, or even to dodge it. As a political matter, it couldn't have been framed more brilliantly. Let's get the cleanup started, says Citizens for a Better Eureka. Why is Neely's Coastal Commission, along with environmental groups like Humboldt Baykeeper and the Environmental Protection Information Center, stalling a cleanup of a contaminated property on the Eureka Waterfront?

Neely is a hard-charging political player and a veteran of such fights, possessing 24 years of experience on the Board of Supervisors and plenty of statewide pull. No doubt she will have rejoinders ready when debate time rolls around. But it's hard to imagine how such rejoinders will cut anywhere near as cleanly as her opponents' charges. She's not going to go without a fight, though -- she recently accepted a $10,000 campaign donation from a Southern California developer, which fills the war chest but inevitably invites new lines of attack.

Essentially, this is going to be a statewide race played out on our turf, and it is not going to be pretty. Will it make any difference? The cleanup is only the first stage of Marina Center, and even if the Eureka City Council approves each additional stage in quick succession, each of those stages will likely be appealed to the Coastal Commission again and again. Neely herself is only one of 12 votes on that commission. The thing could be torpedoed at any stage, and it'll take years and years and years to clear the legal field for construction in any case.

Wise voters will cover their heads for the next few months, because the mud is going to be flying in from all directions. The idea will be to obscure the technicalities of the thing itself, and to replace them with seething anger, conspiracy and innuendo at the personalities behind the project, or behind the opposition to the project. Political people know that's what gets out the vote, but care little about the fact that it leaves us all stupider.

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Hank Sims

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