by Rosemary Edmiston
When he agreed to be interviewed by The Journal, Supervisor Paul Kirk set some ground rules: meet in the location of his choice, no tape recorders and only one interviewer present.
As chairman of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Kirk does wield some political power. But that power is being threatened this election year by three challengers, all of whom say they can do a better job than the incumbent.
The race has divided McKinleyville, home to each of the opponents and a town where four years ago Kirk enjoyed widespread support among residents and leaders of the business community. The June 2 primary promises to see that support splintered, but it remains unclear if the incumbent or any of his challengers is strong enough to pull in more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff in November.
Stretching from the ocean to the Trinity River and the Mad River to the Del Norte County border, the 5th District is largely rural and includes such diverse communities as Orick, Hoopa and Blue Lake. The most heavily populated area is unincorporated McKinleyville.
At least two of the people seeking Kirk's job say they were encouraged to enter the race because the incumbent has proven inconsistent and ineffective, particularly in issues affecting outlying areas.
But Kirk points to a list of accomplishments, the most significant of which were shaking up the Planning Department and replacing the top bureaucrat in the county hierarchy -- the chief administrative officer. And, he says, he may not get to outlying areas regularly, but he is consistently working on issues affecting the rural communities.
Although Kirk is from Trinidad, all four candidates socialize and network in some of the same circles in McKinleyville.
"It makes it interesting, doesn't it?" said challenger John Frederick.
Ben Shepherd, a challenger with the greatest name recognition who is in his fifth term on the board of the McKinleyville Community Services District, recalled that 5th District elections in the past were "very polarized."
"Historically we had diametrically opposed, philosophically divergent candidates facing off against each other," he said.
While Kirk describes himself as a "conservative Republican businessman," two of his opponents -- Frederick and Shepherd -- say they are moderates. Challenger Sara Senger, an attorney, says she's a "social liberal" but has a "big fat conservative streak ... when it comes to things like police protection."
Shepherd, whose voting record on the services district has historically mirrored a more conservative board majority, said he's getting support from both liberals and conservatives.
Frederick, a real estate agent who joined the Peace Corps out of college and has a background in fisheries and biology, said he has received support from developers and the business community.
Four years ago Kirk raised a whopping $89,000 to finance his campaign, $21,000 of which came from gravel, timber and other resource industries. Kirk has now adopted the spirit of campaign finance reform and this time around is limiting contributions to $250, spending no more than $25,000 on the primary.
It's unclear if big industry will finance any one candidate, as it has in the past. Candidates said so far they hadn't seen such hefty donations.
Shepherd plans to spend less than $30,000, while Frederick says $10,000 "would be a lot of money to spend." Senger, who has been campaigning the longest on a grassroots level, said she is limiting campaign contributions to $250.
Kirk is a former salesman who moved to Humboldt County in 1983. Along with his wife, he is the owner of the Trinidad Bay Bed and Breakfast which he plans to sell this year after 15 years of ownership. Kirk replaced long-time Supervisor Anna Sparks four years ago. He had volunteered in her office as a kind of apprenticeship to the board and was endorsed by Sparks.
His last two years on the board have been the most tumultuous. He reversed his previous support of former Planning Director Tom Conlon and Administrative Officer Chris Arnold last spring and personally called both of them to request their resignations. He said he made the decision to do so for the good of the county.
The result has been a more user-friendly planning process and a strong leader in John Murray, the new chief administrative officer, Kirk said.
A new budget process -- where finances are monitored closely and each department is required to clearly communicate its needs -- is finally coming on line with Murray's help, Kirk said.
"This is the best planning process and the best result we've had since the early '90s," he said.
Four years ago it was the budget that topped Kirk's list of priorities. This year, he said, in the worse-case scenario the county will have to use its entire reserve account to cover expenses. In the best of circumstances the county would break even with reserves intact.
Yet the budget remains on the lips of Kirk's three opponents.
Shepherd advocates long-term financial planning for every county department; Frederick wants to "scare Sacramento, rattle the cage" in an effort to get more property tax revenue redirected in 1992 funneled back to the county and Senger says supervisors need to be better educated before making budget decisions.
Facing several health issues, the decision to seek re-election wasn't immediate for Kirk. Recently diagnosed with diabetes, the 54-year-old former salesman lost 65 pounds in four months and began an exercise program. After his health improved, Kirk said he made "a very confident decision in late December to definitely go for it for another four years."
If his re-election bid is successful, Kirk said, "I have no intention of running for a third time."
On the board he'd like to see the community planning process continue (McKinleyville needs to finish its plan, followed by Westhaven); wants to increase funding for rural law enforcement and would like to see the business park at the Arcata-Eureka Airport become a reality. And as he has done for a decade, he will continue to represent the county on fisheries issues.
A former Southern California resident, Frederick, 52, moved to Humboldt County in 1971 but discovered jobs were hard to come by and left. He graduated from California State University at Northridge and joined the Peace Corps.
He permanently returned to Humboldt County in 1979 and, like his father in Los Angeles, opened a piano refinishing business. His resume also includes a stint with the National Marine Fisheries Services in San Diego and a temporary position with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Humboldt County.
He also worked as a longshoreman, drove a forklift and taught fisheries classes at College of the Redwoods before going into real estate with his wife. The couple own Azalea Realty in McKinleyville.
The county, he says, has a poor record when it comes to economic development, citing short 10-year ground lease options at the Arcata-Eureka Airport which effectively prevent companies from locating or building there.
The county isn't anti-business, he said, but is just not doing long-range planning.
"They've been more tied up with the library, the jail, the potholes, storm damage, and they get distracted just like everybody else. In business you get sidetracked and forget what your goal is, until you start losing business."
Frederick was the 3rd District representative to the Humboldt Bay Harbor District until he moved to the 5th District in 1995. He supports developing the harbor and he would like the county to secure revenue bond money to pay for a marine terminal, which he projects could generate $10 million annually.
A former staff attorney for North Coast Advocacy Services, Senger, 43, decided to run for the board after the county cut welfare benefits for poor people. If elected she said she would like to see Director of Social Services John Frank replaced and make sure the county was "empowering, not punishing" welfare recipients.
"I come to this a very passionate and dedicated person. And if I get choked up it's because ... I believe that the people that are vulnerable like our little children and our frail elderly and our people with disabilities ... need to be protected," she said.
Senger, who grew up in Monterey and moved to Humboldt County in 1993, said if elected she would spend at least one week with each department "to find out what the heck they're doing." That, she said, is something the present board has failed to do.
"They don't really want to delve into what those departments have to do. They want that done for them and presented to them on a silver platter."
Senger also advocates better community planning, promoting tourism and increasing police protection. She watched the rehabilitation of downtown Monterey and thinks the board working with state and city leaders could do the same thing for Eureka.
"(Highway) 101 through Broadway looks like the Soviet Union ... nothing but cement," she said.
Regarding ideas for boosting law enforcement she cited her tenacity and experience as an advocate. "I'm going to be kicking and screaming if they don't increase police coverage. I'm not one of these kinds of people that just shows up at civic events and shakes everybody's hand."
This is Shepherd's second run for the board -- he was a candidate 12 years ago but lost in the primary. This time he's running on his 18-year record with the McKinleyville services district.
Shepherd, 56, retires this year after more than 30 years as a teacher at Trinidad School.
He believes that aside from the budget, another serious issue facing the district is adequate law enforcement. While he has no specific ideas for increasing Sheriff's Department funding, the candidate said re-prioritizing efforts could benefit the 5th District. Too much time and money has gone into policing environmental protests at the expense of rural patrols, he said.
He's not happy with the way McKinleyville's retail strip has developed and supports forming a county planning commission specific to McKinleyville.
When he was elected to the MCSD board in 1980, Shepherd recalled, the district office had plastic windows with night shutters to keep vandals from breaking them out. The board and town has matured considerably since then, he said, pointing to such improvements as the McKinleyville library, a community center and more parks.
All candidates tiptoed around the issue of McKinleyville incorporation saying the idea needs to be studied. Several expressed doubt that the tax base would support such a move yet all agreed that the community is experiencing growing pains and yearns for greater self-determination.
McKinleyville is often called Humboldt County's largest non-city. Its citizens certainly have the majority of the votes June 2 in determining who represents the 5th District.
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