North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

March 14, 2002

A slower speed limit

Republican primary undecided

Sterns mentally ill?

Nurses to vote this week

Dam plan moves forward

No extra water for Trinity

Arcata and the money

Tempered economic optimism

Prosperity Journal gone

A slower speed limit

By Memorial Day weekend, it will be illegal to drive faster than 50 miles per hour in the accident-plagued section of Highway 101 that runs between Arcata and Eureka.

It may also cost speeders twice as much in traffic fines if they are caught.

The plan to lower the speed limit was unveiled by California Department of Transportation officials at a meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The new speed limit along the five-mile corridor is just one of several new safety measures being undertaken by Caltrans in the wake of a two-car collision on Jan. 23 that killed four people.

Others include the creation of a permanent radar speed detection system, the installation of flashing beacons at intersections and new warning signs informing drivers that they are in a "safety corridor" and asking them to be "courteous."

Rick Knapp of Caltrans said that while the collision rate for the corridor as a whole is below the state average, accidents at the intersections are higher than the norm.

As part of the effort to make the corridor safer, traffic violation fines in the corridor would double under legislation being proposed by State Sen. Wesley Chesbro. Additionally, the California Highway Patrol has requested additional funding so that it can effectively enforce the slower speed limit. "We will be writing a lot of tickets out there this summer," Sgt. Hal Rosendahl told the county board.

The supervisors expressed support for the package of safety measures, which will cost about $200,000. Some members of the public, however, complained that by focusing on traffic speed, Caltrans was failing to address the main safety hazard in the corridor: the presence of several left-turn lanes that enable cars to cross the highway in front of oncoming traffic.

"Rather than closing the left-turn lanes, they're placing the onus on CHP and local law enforcement officers," said Dave Schneider, who regularly commutes along the route.


Republican primary undecided

Republican candidates for the 1st Assembly District were so close at the close of the March 5 primary that they decided not to declare a winner.

And they still haven't.

Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown and Mendocino County Deputy District Attorney Tim Stoen each received about 35 percent of the vote. Stoen had a 196-vote edge, but with more than 4,000 absentee and provisional ballots left to count after Election Day, neither could be declared the winner.

That 196-vote margin had been reduced to just 44 votes after Lake County finished its tally. Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties had yet to count their remaining ballots by press time Tuesday afternoon. Any one of the counties has enough votes left uncounted to tip the balance.

The uncounted votes are mostly absentee ballots turned in at the polls, said Lindsay McWilliams, Humboldt County's elections officer. The signature on each of those ballots has to be checked against the signature on record at the elections office. Provisional ballots are those given when it is unclear on election day if the person had the right to vote; that question must now each be resolved on a ballot-by-ballot basis.

The candidates have expressed admiration for each other during the counting. Stoen and Brown have both said they would support the other's candidacy in the general election this fall.

"I'm staying pretty serene on all of this," Stoen said. "I have immense respect and admiration for my opponent -- even affection," he said.

The counties have until April 4 to certify the results.

Sterns mentally ill?

FORMER HUMBOLDT STATE UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATOR John Sterns is mentally ill, according to a report filed in court Tuesday.

Sterns, who has been charged with embezzlement, falsifying government records and forgery, suffers from schizoid-affective disorder and depression, said his attorney Marion Miller.

"It's a major mental health diagnosis," Miller said in an interview outside the courtroom after the report was filed. "Symptoms range from irrational behavior and hallucinations to psychosis," she said. "You don't fake this."

But you can hide it, Miller said. She said that Sterns "is a person of great intelligence" and was able to mask his illness for most of his life.

Miller said the disorder first became apparent in March 2001, shortly after the first allegations of misconduct at HSU. He was checked into the Semper Virens psychiatric facility in Eureka and diagnosed there with clinical depression. In November he was rehospitalized at a facility in Mt. Diablo and diagnosed with schizoid-affective disorder.

Sterns, who now lives with his wife's family in Walnut Creek, is on an extensive regimen of medication and therapy, Miller said. He did not appear in person for the court date.

The pre-plea probation report was requested by the judge in the case, John Feeney. It would help Feeney decide how to sentence Sterns were he to plead guilty but cannot be used as a defense during a trial.

"The people's position is that he has long-term problems, but that's no defense," said Rob Wade, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case. "His conduct has been extremely serious." Sterns' alleged crimes at HSU, which went beyond mere theft to include vast misrepresentations of his own abilities and achievements, are estimated to have cost the school at least $120,000.

The District Attorney's office has repeatedly stated it will not offer special conditions or leniency in return for a guilty plea.

Sterns' next court date is April 4 to discuss any other issues that may need to be addressed. A preliminary hearing is set for April 11.

Nurses to vote this week

Nurses at St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka will vote March 15 on whether or not to organize as part of the California Nurses Association.

The election comes at the end of a tumultuous campaign. Nurses allege that management has applied increasing pressure to vote against unionization and has even broken the law.

"Several nurses were pulled into offices and directly asked one-on-one what their vote will be," said Tracey Ledbetter, a San Jose nurse and member of the CNA Board of Directors. Ledbetter said such question would violate the National Labor Relations Act, which provides protections for a secret election.

Blame for the violations lies with the Burke Group, Ledbetter said. The management consulting group, which has been advising St. Joseph throughout the election campaign, has been implicated in illegal antiunion campaigns in other California hospitals.

"They [the Burke Group] are training these managers in what to do," she said.

St. Joseph management said in a statement that it did not believe there had been any violations of the act. "If there are allegations, they are for the National Labor Relations Board to review," the statement reads.

The CNA won't lodge a formal complaint with the NLRB because it might delay the election, Ledbetter said. "At this juncture we will just go ahead with the vote," she said.

Dam plan moves forward

A proposal to study the feasibility of building a dam on Willow Creek has received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In an order issued March 5, FERC granted Big Rock Power Partners a three-year "preliminary permit" to study the feasibility of the project, which calls for building an 80-foot-long, 15-foot-high concrete diversion dam, as well as 5.45-megawatt power plant. The project would be located near Willow Creek, at a location within the Six Rivers National Forest known as Steamboat Rock.

Patrick Shannon, a Willow Creek resident and a chief proponent of the project, said it would provide enough electrical power to serve 3,000 households. He said he and his partner in the venture, Mark Middleton of Mad River, are hoping to start an electrical cooperative that would be owned either by home owners or an Indian tribe.

Tim McKay of the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata, expressed concern that the project is proceeding without a thorough study of its environmental impacts.

No extra water for Trinity

A Hoopa Valley Tribe request for an increase in flows in the Trinity River has been rebuffed by the Bush administration.

The recent decision by the U.S. Department of the Interior means that a 2001 court order that capped flows at levels set for a drought year remains in effect -- even though it is estimated there will be significantly more water from snowmelt and storage this year than last.

In December 2000, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt ordered an increase in the amount of water sent down the Trinity, which had seen its salmon stocks seriously depleted by decades of water diversions to Central Valley farmers. After a challenge was mounted by the agriculture and hydropower industries, however, a federal judge ruled that the government had not properly studied the impact of Babbitt's order.

Arcata and the money

The city of Arcata, eager to collect a $194,128 debt from the Arcata Economic Development Corp., has proposed a novel solution: We'll lend you the money so you can pay us back.

In a debt-for-debt swap approved at the March 6 City Council meeting, the city would loan AEDC $194,128 from the Aldergrove Industrial Park Fund. The corporation would turn around and repay that amount to the city's revolving-loan fund, used to fund housing programs and economic development.

The new loan would be secured with the Foodworks building, a business incubator for culinary enterprises. If the corporation doesn't repay the loan, the building would transfer to city hands.

That is in fact the plan, said Dan Hauser, Arcata's city manager. "This is a 90-day loan with the assumption they will transfer title of the Foodworks building to the city," he said. The corporation has been unable to run the Foodworks facility at a profit, but it is hoped the city could do better, Hauser said.

"We have lower insurance rates and we won't have the debt burden the AEDC did. And we don't have to pay property taxes," he said.

The city will undertake a study to ascertain just how feasible running Foodworks would be. Results are expected in May.

Even if Foodworks has to be sold, the city could probably realize a tidy profit, Hauser said. The facility is encumbered with $615,000 in debt but was recently appraised at $1.4 million.

Tempered economic optimism

Humboldt County may not be making great economic strides, but at least it isn't going backwards.

That's the picture from the latest Index of Economic Activity, a monthly snapshot of Humboldt's economic health produced by Professor Steve Hackett and his staff at Humboldt State University. The latest report covers January, the most recent period for which data are available.

That data shows continued strength in the industry that has proven to be Humboldt's best performer over the last two years: home sales. Sales of new and existing homes jumped another 10.5 percent in January.

"It's a clear trend," Hackett said. Home sales have more than doubled since 1997. That's good news for a broader section of Humboldt's population than just real estate agents, he said.

"Construction workers, contractors, mortgage brokers, appraisers -- there is a whole community of people that depend on home sales."

Tourism, another big industry for Humboldt, rebounded from the beating it took after 9-11. Activity increased 16.4 percent, making this the best January in three years.

Even timber had a good month, scoring a 4.4 percent increase. That did little to erase the serious difficulties timber companies face, however: Lumber manufacturing has suffered a series of declines due to structural changes and pressures from cheap foreign softwood sources. January may have represented an increase over December, but it was still the worst winter for timber since the Index began in 1994.

And there were other reasons for tempered enthusiasm. Retail sales were sluggish, gasoline prices increased and the unemployment rate rose to 7.5 percent -- more than a percentage point higher than in December.

But Hackett remained hopeful. "We have increases in home sales and hospitality is hanging in there," he said. "Our broad indicators show that we have turned the corner on the recession," he said.

Prosperity Journal gone

It was called Prosperity, but apparently it wasn't prosperous enough: The Prosperity Journal, a quarterly publication that sought to boost economic development in the region, has seen its last issue.

The periodical is an outgrowth of Prosperity!, a wide-ranging economic development plan adopted by the county in 2000. Prosperity! the plan is based on nine basic industries; Prosperity the magazine focused on one of those industries per issue.

It proved impractical to publish the Prosperity Journal every quarter, said publisher Kathy Moxon. The new idea is to write stories and offer them to Humboldt County newspapers for use in their publications.

"It's an experiment to control costs," Moxon said.

The main drawback is that Prosperity! would lose visibility, she said. "We are going to try to get them to put a logo on it," she said. "And if we can talk newspapers into putting us in a column area, that would be good. But there's no guarantee."



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