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April 20, 2006

9 Questions for Dan Hauser

story and photo by HANK SIMS

Photo of Dan HauserArcata City Manager Dan Hauser (right) will step down from his position next month after a five-year stint as city government's chief of staff, which has been roughly coterminous with the presidency of George W. Bush. During that time, while Arcata has made national headlines (especially on Fox News) for Bush-bashing resolutions put forward by the Arcata City Council, Hauser has been working behind the scenes, keeping the gears and wheels of the city's day-to-day governance oiled. Michael Hackett, the former city manager of Alamosa, Colo., will take over Hauser's duties on May 15.

Hauser's retirement at the age of 63 seems to mark the end of one of the North Coast's longest political careers. He was elected to the Arcata City Council in 1974, and served there for eight years, four of them as mayor. (He was an early advocate of the groundbreaking Arcata Marsh wastewater treatment facility.) Voters elevated him to the state assembly in 1982, and he continued to serve there until term limits pushed him out in 1996. After leaving the legislature, he served for a brief spell as executive director of the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency that owns the long-dead train line to Humboldt County, and also as a consultant to new members of the legislature. The city of Arcata, his home base throughout these years, hired him back in 2000.

The next items on the Hauser agenda are all about travel: He and his wife, Donna, will be touring the American West by rail this summer before heading on a tour of China and Tibet in the fall.

1. To some sectors of the county, and to viewers of the Bill O'Reilly program, Arcata city government is a watchword for loopiness and insanity. In the space I've allotted you here, prove them wrong.

Well, certainly some of the things that the council may do are a little off-the-wall and not in the mainstream of Humboldt County, but they've got a very diverse constituency to represent. On the other hand, as a city government, I'd put the quality of our employees, especially the police department, up against any in the county. It's a top-notch, very capable, very skilled police department. They're working under adverse conditions, they're understaffed, but they're one of the most effective police departments in northern California.

Fiscally, we're very sound. Our reserves are very prudent. Our income is very diverse -- we're not dependent on any one income stream. There are some communities that are so dependent on the sales tax, for example, that a slide in the retail sector devastates them. We're very well spread out. Certainly sales tax is our most important source, but it's not so critical. Minor downturns don't affect us. And we haven't had any downturns. We've had progressive growth in our sales tax revenues and our transient occupancy taxes, and so forth, and it's kept our city pretty stable.

2. One of the things that I always thought was sort of an untold story is that people don't realize that in some ways, Arcata is the industrial base of the county. And that dates back, I think, to some forward-looking decisions that you and your colleagues took while you were on the council.

Arcata recognized early on that the economy in Humboldt County was changing from the timber/resource base -- that we needed to diversify and encourage other things, especially light manufacturing. And it's paid off. Some of those light manufacturers are in direct sales, so we receive one percent of their sales. And you'd be surprised at the number of local businesses that do direct marketing over the Internet. It's helped a lot. It's helped stabilize us. When we lost the two auto dealerships, we really didn't see a downturn in sales tax revenue. Normally, you would think that that would be a major hit.

3. What are the biggest challenges that your successor is going to inherit?

Overall, he's not going to have any particular problems, in that the big-ticket issues have been dealt with, or are being dealt with as we talk. There's a current three-year contract that won't be opened for some period of time, so there's some stability there. It gives him the opportunity to work on some of the ancillary issues, such as morale.

One of the issues I do believe he'll be faced with is the need to reorganize some of what our departments do. We tried to make an attempt at that last fall, but it was not successful. I think it's going to have to be revisited and reintroduced. Should public works include water and wastewater? Right now those are in environmental services, and that's not really necessarily a fit.

There are ongoing issues. Relations with the state of California -- every city's got to face that. We just wrapped up the major cable television franchise agreements, but there's a movement in the legislature to eliminate those agreements. For local government, that's a very big income issue.

4. It's interesting -- those things you mention, those wouldn't be the first things that pop to mind when thinking about the challenges Arcata faces. They're very internal. I think people would say that Issue #1 is the homeless issue, and the Plaza, and safety.

I don't think those are issues that are going to lend themselves to quick fixes. They're certainly going to be on the plate for ongoing consideration. But with last night's Council meeting, we've pretty much exhausted any potential sites to relocate the Endeavor to.

I think ultimately, the council's going to have to make a decision. Can the city provide any level of services to the transient homeless population? Or should it? But that's going to be a political decision. It's not a city manager's decision.

5. Well, it's funny how sometimes people have identified you as the "problem."

Yeah, I'm the bad guy.

Number one, you have to understand that the way the state of California is set up, cities are neither funded nor equipped nor have the statuatory requirement to provide any level of services for transient populations. At best, that is a county responsibility. I don't believe that Arcata is equipped or capable of ever meeting the demand that is out there.

Certainly, Arcata could scale back and provide a program for resident needy families -- a food bank type of system, for seniors and low-income and so forth -- but for the city to provide ongoing services for nomadic or transient populations is taking on something that would be devastating for the city. And I believe that the services that are provided are in great part what brings about the large numbers that congregate on the Plaza and move through town day in and day out.

Most of the information we have is extremely anecdotal, and is based upon observations only. But to the best we've been able to determine, there is at any given time a true homeless population of 110 to 130 people. In addition to that, which we might be able to deal with, you have at least that number and maybe more that move through on a weekly to daily basis. I see them move by, all day long, in both directions, and I rarely see the same face twice. But you know where they're headed: to the Endeavor or to the Plaza. And to only accomplish begging ... it's not something that contributes to the community.

6. How would you compare city government today with the time when you were on the council, when you were young?

One of the things that I've seen and observed is that even though we had some fairly strong personalities and, definitely, different opinions on how to do things, we more often worked together as a team than we did against each other. It was a combination of being willing to work together, and of occasionally reducing your own ego for the benefit of the city. And I would also argue that we had strong leadership.

7. And that's something...

It's not as evident today.

Certainly there are some council members who are very capable, very qualified. But there does not seem to be any interest in working together as a group. About the only time I've seen them work together as a group is in selecting on a city manager.

8. How much of it, too, is the fact that certain councilmembers seemed not focused so much on the city as on the great issues of the day?

We were focused primarily on the city. I think that's a fair observation. But also on how we could accomplish things on the city level that were reflective of bigger concerns. The Marsh is part of that. The larger-scale problems, of energy and environment and so forth, were always in our consciousness, and it resulted in things like the Marsh, preservation of ag lands, the bus system and so on. Those sorts of things.

9. So, you've had a long and distinguished career in public service -- in the assembly and here. What are some of the highlights? What are you most proud of?

Well, the Marsh, of course.

I loved being in the legislature. I had a great time. It was a hard job -- seven days a week. I was fairly good at it. I had 307 bills signed into law by Republican governors -- the biggest one was probably the ban on offshore oil drilling on the North Coast, which was later expanded to the entire state. A ban on harvesting Great White sharks. A lot of fishing legislation. We didn't always accomplish what we would have liked to, but a lot of the things I'm very pleased with. The bulk of the legislation went to help people and to protect the environment at the same time.


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