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Top 10 Stories of 2013 

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Grant Scott-Goforth

Summing up the tumult and transformations of a year in Humboldt County with only 10 stories is impossible. Collected here are some — definitely not all — of the events that stayed with us. For more on these stories, go to northcoastjournal.com.

The Fires

The communities tucked along the rivers in our mountains know fire. This fire season, their sustained effort yielded some of the best cooperation yet between locals, trained volunteers and forest officials, as incident commanders and supervisors urged their firefighters to listen to the locals and respect their knowledge.

And locals were more informed than ever before, as they took to Facebook to report on the fires, discuss tactics, plan meetings, organize grocery runs and volunteers, and keep each other's spirits up. Residents formed the Salmon River & Orleans Complexities Facebook page as the go-to spot — where updates continue to this day.

Fire teams with the Forest Service likewise reported fire news on Facebook, though one beloved fire lookout was admonished by his Forest Service bosses to stop posting on the citizens' page.

Some 50,000 acres burned in all, taking out phone lines and billowing smoke that caused the Hoopa Valley Tribe to declare a state of emergency. The first fire, likely arson, started July 29 unnervingly close to the town of Orleans; the Dance Fire, which was out within days, destroyed Karuk elder Zona Ferris' home, closed Highway 96 and demolished orchards, vehicles and other properties. Two days later came the Butler Fire, also thought to be arson, seven miles east of Orleans along the Salmon River. Then the Forks Fire, along the North Fork of the Salmon River, started; it, too, was thought to be arson. Then multiple lightning strikes ignited the Corral Fire inside the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

— Heidi Walters

Homeless in Humboldt

A "point-in-time" survey in January by the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition counted 1,579 people (including 632 school children and 123 kids under 5) living in the streets and woods or camped in cars and on friends' couches. That's 1,579 stories, most unfolding privately. A few stories, however, grabbed public attention in moments of tragedy, turmoil and hope.

The coroner's office has struggled to identify a man who died in a nighttime fire at a solo Cooper Gulch homeless camp in March. He's thought to be William Cody Waldron, a blustery but gentlemanly drunk tank regular. In September, two homeless people allegedly attacked two other homeless people with a crossbow near a homeless camp off State Route 255; one of the victims died. On Dec. 2, 59-year-old Chester Bighead, who also struggled with alcoholism, drowned in Humboldt Bay. His obituary noted that he had lost many family members and "was an explorer, an outdoorsy playboy, who had many talents ... like playing his famous air guitar and kung fu kicks."

In November, Lorena Boswell published the first issue of The Humboldt Edge (the second issue has just hit the streets). The paper, written mostly by homeless people, "serves to counter the marginalization, stigmatization and silencing of people in poverty," says a statement on the front page. Its pages hold frank and sometimes gentle stories, rants, poems and pleas for understanding and help.

Also in November, the new Betty Kwan Chinn Day Center opened on the corner of Seventh and C streets in Eureka. The center is funded by the Diocese of Santa Rosa's Catholic Charities, other donors and the foundation formed by Chinn, who suffered persecution and homelessness for four years under Mao in China. It offers numerous services for homeless people, including help finding housing and work, counseling, tutoring and more.

In counterpoint to the "hand-up" approach, Rob Arkley rallied citizens to a September meeting to discuss what you might call the "hand-withdrawn" approach. In a widely published letter titled "Dear All," Arkley said government and nonprofit programs make Humboldt "a Mecca for the homeless and we all pay the price." Several hundred people crammed into the meeting and a hundred more clustered outside. One by one, they argued over Arkley's plan to form a committee to scour the county's programs and policies and weed a few out.

— Heidi Walters

Take Me Out

The Humboldt Crabs' ascent to their third straight title this year garnered some controversy as the team finished off its season in August, and the curveballs didn't stop there.

On the penultimate day of the Far West League Tournament, Crabs catcher and crowd favorite Sergio Sanchez responded to three inside pitches (the third of which beaned him) with the decidedly unsportsmanlike decision to throw his bat into the infield past the California Warriors pitcher who'd struck him.

Video of the incident went viral, garnering national attention and more than 800,000 views on YouTube. Former Crabs President Matt Filar defended Sanchez, who earned a two-game suspension, saying the batter was frustrated by the aggressive pitches and the umpire's apparent disregard. The video and public response, Filar complained, didn't include the full at-bat. This "could very well damage the future of a very talented and very good young man," Filar told the Journal.

The Crabs would go on, with Sanchez's help, to win the tournament.

A week and a day after that victory, team General Manager Matt Nutter was arrested in his Blue Lake home after Humboldt County Sheriff's Office deputies found five guns and more than 300 marijuana plants on the property. Nutter — who had managed the Crabs for six years — is slated to appear in court in January.

The third strike for the Crabs' tumultuous season came in October when the three other teams in the Crabs' Far West League unexpectedly bailed on the league, joining instead the California Collegiate League.

It's unclear why the teams — the Menlo Park Legends, the Neptune Beach Pearl and the Walnut Creek Crawdads — abandoned the Far West League, but they each reached out to the California Collegiate League shortly after the 2013 season wrapped. The Crabs' 2014 season schedule will remain unchanged, though there will be no tournament, and further repercussions are uncertain. The Crabs called up a new president, Vikki Rossi, to make their next play.

— Grant Scott-Goforth

General Plan Madness

The year began with one of the freshest-faced boards of supervisors ever, a group with only eight years of county government experience between them. The newest supervisors — Rex Bohn in the 1st District and Estelle Fennell in the 2nd — agreed with their new colleagues that a top priority should be finishing the long-overdue update of the county's general plan, which guides land use decisions in the unincorporated areas. It's been almost 30 years since the last update.

For a brief moment it looked like the new board was intent on achieving consensus through cooperation. An ad hoc working group made up of longtime political opponents was meeting regularly and hammering out policy recommendations. The update was proceeding relatively peacefully.

Until May, when Supervisor Fennell unveiled a new set of guiding principles — a list she suggested should replace existing principles that had been developed though a robust public process and had supposedly been guiding the update process for nearly a decade. Fennell's new principles, written behind closed doors and co-presented with Bohn, seemed to come straight from the newsletters of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR), a special-interest corporation that Fennell led before getting elected. The corporation's founder, Lee Ulansey, had helped organize lock-step campaign donations from real estate developers, homebuilders and their allies for four of the five supervisors.

These same four supes appointed two of HumCPR's key players — Ulansey and Bob Morris — to the county Planning Commission, and then proceeded to vote in policies, including substantially reworded guiding principles, that honor private property rights at the expense of environmental protections.

The changes to the general plan are substantive, and the Humboldt Builders' Exchange argues the update has been rendered "internally inconsistent and functionally obsolete." The nonprofit contractors' group is threatening to sue the county unless the update gets sent back to a planning commission that's now stacked with developer allies. This procedural rewind would delay the update yet again, and could further tilt county policy toward unrestrained development. As the year draws to a close, the general plan update is an unholy mess, and the county's political climate is filled with bitter distrust.

— Ryan Burns

Mollusk Meltdown

It was the Year of the Fence. When the Journal broke the news on Apr. 30 that the 23rd Annual Oyster Festival on the plaza — historically free and generally raucous — would be surrounded by a chain-link barrier and that entrants would be charged $10, the public furor dwarfed any political contest in recent memory. We should get so worked up over elections.

In a press release, Arcata Main Street's then Executive Director Jennifer Koopman reasoned that the organization needed the funds to run the festival and other events, especially absent money from the city's defunct redevelopment agency, and that the fee would "change the dynamic and energy of the event, making it safer and more fun for all ages" (which is press release-ese for keeping out the drunken riff-raff). Some vendors who'd laid out hefty fees to participate before the barrier business came to light asked for refunds, and plaza store owners worried that customers would be shop-blocked by the fence.

After a robust debate, the Arcata City Council voted to approve the fence. There were cries of elitism. There was a call to boycott. And a call to boycott the boycotter. In the end, the festival proceeded with the usual (if somewhat subdued) revelry and gorging, and without a full-scale war or the complete unraveling of our social fabric.

Koopman weathered the summer storm, but by early November she was out of a job. David Neyra, one of a shrinking number of Arcata Main Street board members, said that while Koopman had done great work over the years, the board voted unanimously to let her go as part of a restructuring plan and in order to "change the face of Arcata Main Street," particularly after the public relations nightmare that was the fence. Koopman's firing led to the resignation of board member Travis Turner, who was absent from the vote and who accused Neyra of using her as a scapegoat.

For now, Greenway Partners has taken over the day-to-day operations of Arcata Main Street — Arts! Arcata, holiday events — as it prepares for that restructuring.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Free Pulp Mill

OK, maybe it cost a dollar. Oh, and it could cost millions to clean the place up and remove the 4 million gallons of toxic pulping liquors lurking inside leaky tanks. But as of August, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District is the proud owner of the former pulp mill in Samoa.

The mill, which once employed 215 millworkers and cranked out 200,000 metric tons per year of kraft pulp, died in 2008 after its owner, Evergreen Pulp, went broke. There was brief hope of resuscitation under new owner Freshwater Tissue Co., which wanted to convert it into an eco-toilet-paper mill. But Freshwater couldn't rally the funds and, finally, shuffled the mill — and all of its troubles and potential joys — over to the harbor district this year.

The district's got enormous, enticing dreams for the joint, including an aquaculture business park with fish-raising raceways, oyster-growing beds and an aquaponics greenhouse; renewable energy and marine research labs; a water bottling plant; brewery; wave energy power conduit and more.

The good news is — aside from the entrepreneurial vigor this mill site always seems to incite — there's plenty of water for the site, and a water treatment facility. And the EPA has already begun helping with some of the cleanup.

The cautionary news: the cost, and the race against time before one of those leaky tanks dumps a bunch of that liquor — which is used to digest pulpwood — into the bay.

— Heidi Walters

Dan Johnson's Plagiarized Speech

According to Dan Johnson's supporters, the construction magnate's plagiarized Arcata High graduation speech shouldn't have been that big of a deal. And it might not have been. With a quick and sincere mea culpa, this unfortunate little episode might have been dismissed as simple ignorance or an unfortunate lapse in judgment. Instead, Johnson stood defiant, even in his belated and belittling quasi-apology, and the incident snowballed into the scandal of the summer.

Community members fretted over what Johnson's behavior was teaching students. And as the scandal dragged on, it grew in both scope and volume. Critics angrily demanded his resignation from the school board; supporters said he was being persecuted for his politics and wealth; and Johnson himself finally lost his cool, ordering a snickering teacher to "go stand in the hallway" during a school board meeting.

Ultimately it was the students of Arcata High's student newspaper, the Pepperbox, who displayed the most class. In the first issue of the new school year the young journalists examined the issue from a variety of angles, displaying maturity, intelligence and a refreshing dose of self-reflection. As Editor-in-Chief Piper Bazard wrote, "We have a responsibility as young scholars to participate in the ongoing dialogue surrounding not just a key community figure, but the overarching topic of plagiarism."

— Ryan Burns

Pot Laws

Go ahead and roll your eyes: "Marijuana again?" Well, yes, and for good reason. After years of frustration over the social and economic destruction wrought by indoor marijuana grows, Arcata finally figured out a brilliant counter-move. Well, technically the city figured it out last year, when voters approved Measure I, commonly called "the marijuana grow tax." This tax effectively levies a big overage fee (45 percent) on any house using more than triple the average amount of energy — an amount easily accomplished running 1,000-watt horticulture bulbs.

The tax finally went into effect last month, and now other local jurisdictions are looking to follow suit. Worried that indoor growers would flee Arcata's taxman, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors has begun working with PG&E to set up a similar system in the county's unincorporated areas, including McKinleyville. And last week, the Eureka City Council voted unanimously to move in the same direction.

This was also the year that recreational pot went legal in both Washington and Colorado, and polls in California suggest that we're not far behind. But until then, local governments are still caught between contradictory state and federal laws, not to mention mixed messages from the Obama administration. Last month the Board of Supervisors extended a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries until it can finally implement a formal ordinance on the issue. Meanwhile, Eureka, which does have an ordinance in place, opted to let its dispensary ban expire.

— Ryan Burns

Regime Change in Eureka, Sort Of

It was a big year in big-name leadership changes for the city of Eureka. New hires stepped into the city's manager and top cop positions, and just last week a lawmaker was replaced.

Where to begin? David Tyson's 12 years as city manager saw a slew of controversies, most notably his disputes with former police Chief Garr Nielsen and the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the city to investigate and pay out claims surrounding those disputes. So some Eureka residents welcomed the news that Tyson would retire at the end of 2012.

In charged Bill Panos, fresh from a public works and port director job in West Sacramento, who by most accounts was ambitious, clever and levelheaded enough to tackle Eureka's policing, development and fiscal problems. Perhaps too ambitious. It was in September — nine months after beginning the job — that Panos announced his resignation, saying he'd taken a post in Wyoming.

Where does that leave the city? With Panos gone, assistant City Manager Mike Knight is temporarily taking the helm (and applying for the permanent position). And, less than a year after his retirement, David Tyson has been hired back into a cushy advisory position.

Still, Panos' short tenure wasn't all for naught. He managed — with one sizable hiccup — to get a warm body into Eureka's second most important job: the chief of police.

A long-running perception of the EPD as a good-ol'-boy network was exacerbated by Nielsen's firing in 2011 and the installation of Murl Harpham as interim chief.

That perception wasn't likely to change when the city selected former EPD Sergeant and current Anderson Police Chief Michael Johnson as Eureka's chief. Things soured quickly, though, and in early August, Johnson withdrew his candidacy after becoming frustrated with the hiring process and calling Panos "unprofessional."

After reopening the position, Eureka now has what appears to be a relatively stable police chief: Andrew G. Mills, a former commanding officer in San Diego, who took the oath last month and has promised to bring his brand of "community policing" to the mean streets of Eureka. Good luck, chief.

Lastly, 5th Ward Councilman Lance Madsen's years-long struggle with cancer led to his resignation from the council this year. Foregoing an election, the council appointed former insurance broker Chet Albin to replace Madsen just this last week. Albin, whose term will end next year if he's not re-elected, moved to Eureka's 5th Ward just six weeks before applying for the seat and changed his party affiliation to Democrat in July 2010. And, as discovered in Albin's now-defunct Facebook page, that political switcheroo appears not to have changed much of his Tea-Party-cum-GOP political views.

— Grant Scott-Goforth

Vitriol in the Victorian Village

It's been a rough coupla years for Ferndale. The quaint village that becomes the Mecca to Humboldt County's farming, home goods, folk art, horse racing and fried food enthusiasts every year was dinged last year with allegations of racial taunting at high school football games. This year, in a decidedly tone-deaf move, supporters of the high school's booster club donned blackface and women's clothing for a painfully inappropriate Rick James parody.

But Ferndale's most important legacy is its role as the host of the annual Humboldt County Fair, an institution that saw major upheaval this year when the Fair Association Board decided not to renew 22-year General Manager Stuart Titus' contract.

That January decision smacked of small-town and back-door wheeling and dealing: Titus' wife Caroline runs the only local news outlet, the Ferndale Enterprise, and had been critical of the board's alleged violations of the Brown Act (California's open-meetings law). Board member Cindy Olsen went as far as to demand during one meeting "that [Stuart] Titus, as co-owner of the Ferndale Enterprise, should ensure that board members not be 'made to look bad' in any stories which appear in the weekly publication."

When Stuart's job appeared threatened, an impassioned group of fair supporters, contributors and co-workers came to his defense.

"It's a chickenshit bunch of guys who run the fair board," California Horse Racing Board Executive Director Kirk Breed told the Times-Standard back in January. "The way they get back at [Caroline] is to get Stuart."

In August, Stuart filed a claim against the board, accusing them of censorship and retaliation. His attorney said he expects a federal lawsuit in time.

The fallout could affect fairgoers. Stuart's management — particularly of the beloved horse racing — was a key factor in keeping the fair viable and keeping horse racing in Humboldt County.

The board came under scrutiny again when member Johanna Rodoni — who voted in favor of renewing Stuart Titus' contract — was arrested for alleged drunk driving following a fair board meeting in October. The board routinely drank at post-meeting "private social hours," according to reports by Caroline Titus — though it's unclear if Rodoni attended that particular evening's gathering.

— Grant Scott-Goforth

Bonus: Panda Watch!

Go ahead. Scoff at the shameless click-bait that is the baby red panda. But from the moment Stella Luna met Sumo at the Sequoia Zoo on Valentine's Day (and, frankly, started "swapping scents" a little early in the relationship), many watched for a baby like a bunch of nosy grandparents. The pair hit it off, and on Father's Day (is Hallmark behind this?), the couple welcomed their 4-ounce bundle of endangered joy into the world. In your adorable faces, giant pandas.

It was another three months before we got a face-to-face look at the little lady — the first of her kind born at Sequoia Park Zoo — but visitors and zoo staff kept an eye on things with a den cam. Meanwhile, the zoo held a drawing to name her and to raise funds for the Red Panda Network and for more animal exhibits. In the end, "Móhú" ("foggy" in Chinese) won out. When she made her out-of-the-den debut — eyes like little black marbles in a puff of pale, ginger fuzz — the collective awww did shake the earth.

At just 6 months old, Móhú is around 10 pounds and nearly as big as her parents, though still "extra super fluffy," according to Amanda Auston, animal care supervisor. While some males have to be removed from the youngsters, Auston says Sumo shares the parenting duties. (Take note, human males.) Móhú is growing more independent, and good thing, too — she's moving out in April and getting her own place in a zoo in Des Moines, Iowa (take note, 20-something humans), since red pandas are naturally solitary. To see her while we've got her, swing by during her 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. feedings.

Stella and Sumo may breed again this January or February, so we may even get another baby by summer. But no guarantees — red pandas typically only mate once a year. (Nobody needs to take note of that.)

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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