August 31, 2006
story and photos by HEIDI WALTERS
July 12, 2006, Trinidad Town Hall. Everybody was there that night -- Mayor Chi-Wei Lin, council members Terry Marlow, George Bowman, Dean Heyenga and Jim Cuthbertson. About half the town had showed up, too. They were there to see if the council would carry through with the coup d'etat it was threatening against Lin.
His term wasn't up. In Trinidad's system, every time there's an election the new council votes among itself on who will serve as mayor. The mayor runs the meetings, but otherwise has an equal vote on the council. There were only four months to go till the next election, but the council had reached a breaking point.
The meeting began innocuously enough, with the usual reports: repairs to the Van Wycke Trail were about to begin, the fire chief had enough cash to get a new fire truck, plans for depicting Trinidad's role as a gateway to the new California Coastal National Monument were slowly advancing, and there was a need for a storage area for tables and chairs that are taking up space in Town Hall.
Eventually, the council got to agenda item No. 1: "Discussion/Decision regarding the transfer of the positions of Mayor and Mayor Pro-tem to other Council members." It was Councilman Cuthbertson's item. He laid out his case: Mayor Lin, alleged Cuthbertson, "had violated a number of city ordinances, resolutions and the Brown Act." And, Cuthbertson said, Lin had "allowed the public to verbally abuse Councilmember Heyenga during meetings."
What followed was an example of the political imbroglios that have put little Trinidad in the headlines of late. True, the town is still mostly famous for its world-class views, its little fishing fleet and Trinidad Head, which looms green and wild over the town. But as readers of local newspapers are aware, Trinidad is also making a name for itself as a civic quagmire, a bumbling no-go zone of accusations and counter-accusations that sometimes seem to render the place ungovernable.
And as soon as the item was called, it was off to the races. Cuthbertson tried to limit public comment during the hearing. Councilmembers Lin and Marlow objected. And they challenged Cuthbertson to provide evidence supporting his accusations against Lin. According to the city clerk's minutes, "City Attorney [Jeff] Guttero agreed with Lin and Marlow [that] he found no evidence to support Cuthbertson's accusations."
The audience, meanwhile, hollered: Some suggested waiting till the November election. Others noted that 100 signatures -- about a third of the city's population -- had been gathered in support of Lin. Yet others said, well, this ain't working so let's try a new leader. The minutes note that 20 people spoke in support of Lin, four just talked about the conflict, and three spoke in favor of changing the mayor.
In the end, Lin was out: Bowman, Heyenga and Cuthbertson voting for it, Marlow and Lin against. "The audience gave a standing ovation in a show of support and appreciation of Mayor Lin," note the minutes.
Then things got really silly: Next on the agenda was the appointment of a new mayor. Heyenga told the audience: "We want what you want. You still have the same five people in office working toward the same goals." (Clerk Adams noted in the minutes: "The audience booed and hissed.")
So, Marlow made a motion to nominate Cuthbertson as mayor, and Lin seconded it. The clerk's notes don't mention it, but an attendee later reported that the hall erupted in howls of laughter and clapping "that went on for a long time." (The minutes say: "Cuthbertson declined.")
The public tore into the council some more, and eventually Heyenga was named the new mayor and Lin the mayor pro-tem.
There was other business that night, but the discussions followed pretty much the same pattern that has defined Trinidad City Council meetings of late: accusatory, bitter, divisive. The meeting adjourned at 11:55 p.m.
Weeks later, standing inside the Trinidad Museum, in a tiny house near the bluff above the bay, long-time resident Patricia Fleschner reflected on the turn town politics have taken. "These meetings -- I get so agitated, and then I go home and I wonder, 'Do I want to live here anymore?'" she said. "And why? Why do they fight? All these people love it here."
O, Trinidad. Such a pretty little berg, hovering above the sea, all fog and sun and tidy houses. But, indeed: What the heck's up with all the bickering?
On any weekday, you'll find Gabe Adams, the Trinidad City Clerk, inside Town Hall, efficiently and cheerfully answering phones and conducting a million chores ordered by the city council members. Adams is young and hip -- not a common sort in the city of Trinidad, pop. 311, average age of 50. (Twenty percent of the residents are over the age of 65.) Here, where the sea practically embraces the high bluff where town nestles, the number of retirees seems to be growing, tourism is rising, more homes are being converted to vacation rentals -- 23, at last count, of the city's total 223 housing units were vacation rentals -- and there's a large number of half-occupied houses, Adams said, to which the owners intend, some day soon, to retire.
The council itself is made up of retirees -- all men at the moment, all of varying shades of gray. All educated and sharp, as well. When Adams speaks of the current council members and their endless hot-tempered hijinks, his voice contains a curious blend of professionalism and affection. It's as if he's talking about his willful uncles and what they did that day -- with restrained humor, but also a tone that suggests he sure wishes they'd get over whatever it is that's boogering them. He's a little mystified, though, as to what exactly that is.
"It's like the show 'Survivor,'" Adams said one morning about a month after the July ousting of Lin from the mayor's seat. "These groups band into tribes, and people lie, say they're your best friend, then in the meeting they vote you off."
Adams thinks it's mostly personality conflicts. And that, perhaps, relief might be in sight. Three council seats are up in November, and the incumbents -- Cuthbertson, Bowman and Marlow -- are not running for re-election. Only three candidates applied, so they're it. The three soon-to-be members -- Kathy Bhardwaj, Stan Binnie and Dwight Miller -- all spoke in support of Lin at that fateful July 12 meeting.
"That's going to create a pretty serious shift in the way things are done on this council," Adams said.
Right: Former mayor Glenn Saunders.
In the meantime, expect more pre-divorce bickering. "These guys get in arguments that go like: 'I didn't say that!' 'Yes you did!' 'No I didn't -- listen to the tape!' They're hanging on each other's words, questioning everything each other says. They're reaching for anything to hold each other accountable."
At a meeting on Aug. 22, which also lasted until just before midnight, the dysfunction was palpable. And now Heyenga was in charge -- he had voted, he said in an interview last week, to remove Lin as mayor in July partly because he "thought that the meetings were getting too contentious." But as he himself noted at that meeting, the same people still sit at the table. The Aug. 22 agenda reflected their inner turmoil. It included Lin's request that the council direct the attorney to investigate whether Cuthbertson violated "government and/or ethics codes" when he accused Lin of violating certain laws, Cuthbertson's request for a discussion on how the council meetings are recorded and Marlow's request that the council talk about whether to establish a citizens' committee to develop guidelines for organizing and conducting council meetings.
And it's not as if those were frivolous topics, because the rest of the agenda items -- actual business pertaining to life outside of Town Hall -- often devolved into wearisome, procedural quarrels. For example, Heyenga had put on an agenda item to discuss whether to hold a town meeting to talk about the recently released draft Tsurai Management Plan, which explores options for 12.5 acres of city land that some residents think should be turned over to the Yurok and the Tsurai Ancestral Society.
After each agenda item, they opened it up for public comment -- a fluid affair, with council members chiming in whenever. As usual, there were former mayors and council members in the audience. Former mayor Glenn Saunders, 82 years old and one of the major land owners in town, sat in the front row monitoring the council play by play. At the July meeting, he had spoken in favor of changing mayors. Saunders was mayor in the '50s and again in the '90s. He was born and raised in Trinidad, remembers the days of gravel and wooden sidewalks. He and his wife, Janis, live on the hill overlooking town, next to the cemetery and above the Chevron station. In fact, they donated the three acres next to the gas station for the new library and museum, set to break ground any day now. They're as civic as they come.
Saunders, taking the floor, said that, once again, the council had put too many items on the agenda. "You're going to go past 11:30 again," he said. He also complained that the council was taking too long to decide how to invest surplus cash, wasn't minding the police till adequately and had a penchant for "deficit spending."
Later the council bickered about a tree on city property that a resident wants to have trimmed to restore the view he once had. They voted 3-2 (Marlow and Lin against) to trim it. It's also true that some items went more smoothly. They voted 5-0 to approve the budget -- balanced and including a $2 an hour raise for three city employees and funds for a new police car. They cheerfully breezed through an item presented by the BLM's Bob Wick, who asked them to help advise them on some interpretative signs for the new coastal national monument.
As for Lin's wish that the council direct the city attorney to investigate Cuthbertson's accusations against him -- after an unpleasant, fruitless exchange, Heyenga, Cuthbertson and Bowman shot it down 3-2.
Still, at least once during the night when the soft-spoken Lin made a funny passing remark, blustery Cuthbertson, sitting beside him, laughed and shared the joke. What's with these guys?
Chi-Wei Lin and his wife, Donna, live in a pretty, natural wood-sided house close to the bluff overlooking Trinidad Beach. Across the street from them is HSU's Telonicher marine research lab. Below them is a home owned by Susan Beresford, president of the Ford Foundation -- she doesn't live there full-time. When someone visits, Chi-Wei Lin hosts the meeting in his home's solarium/art studio, where he and Donna paint. It's all glass and light and tile, with a view -- on sunny days -- of Flatiron Rock and Pewetole Island, sea stacks important to marine mammals and seabirds. The room is soothing even on a foggy day. And, it has a door that can be shut -- try to have a conversation with the door open, or in the main house, and the big, bright-feathered bird in there will join in raucously from its cage.
The Lins are retired. Donna is a biomedical engineer. Chi-Wei, a biochemist, was born in Hong Kong and spent his early years in mainland southern China. He was director of the urology research lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, where he did cancer research. When they were looking for a place to retire, they visited Donna's family on the north coast and, one day, stopped for lunch in Trinidad. They sat in the sun in front of the memorial lighthouse that overlooks the bay. "It was January," Chi-Wei Lin recalled. "In Boston, the snow was this high." He raised his left hand above the floor three feet.
Left: Chi-Wei Lin.
They moved to Trinidad in 1997. But he didn't get involved in town politics until seven years later. "The financial situation was very bad," Lin said. The city had spent two year's battling with a resident, John Frame, over the use of a trail that runs by Frame's house. In brief: The city had agreed with Frame that it wouldn't advertise the trail in brochures -- it was an extra one, and others would take hikers to the same place. A brochure slipped through, however, with the trail identified on it. After two years of litigation, the city's general fund reserve had dropped from $350,000 to $45,000.
"The case eventually settled," Lin said. And he, meanwhile, had gotten on the city council. "The first thing I contributed to was to raise the sales tax and sell two properties."
He's proud of his effort on the sales tax. Trinidad sees about 10,000 tourists -- some say 20,000 -- a year. With the increased sales tax, the sale of the two properties, and the end to the Frame litigation last year, the city now has more than $500,000 in reserve and a more than $100,000 surplus.
So what are people screaming about at council meetings?
"I have no idea," Lin said. "They always need something to fight about."
Sure, Lin wants his name cleared. But he said the council ought to focus on the bigger issues. One, he said, is the way city government is run. Maybe the city needs a city manager, he said. As it is, council members are both running departments and making policies -- a potential conflict. Plus, he said, the council members tend to "micromanage."
"We have a bathroom next to Town Hall," he said. "The city council talked about whether there should be hand towels or blow dry. You know, this kind of issue is ridiculous -- it took up time. I don't think the council needs to discuss every little thing."
The city faces broader issues, he said, that affect its landscape: tourism pressures, land use, water quality concerns, watershed management, the city's relationship with Native Americans, continuing the tax increase, preserving Trinidad Head (from more cell towers, for instance -- a touchy topic of late). The city is updating its general plan, which will guide land use policy for the next 20 years. The state water board, meanwhile, last year told the city it wasn't in compliance with state regulations. "Because of its location, on the ocean and bay, Trinidad is an Area of Special Biological Significance," Lin said. "It's one of 34 in the state. With that designation, nothing can be discharged into the water." The city's storm drain near the pier has to be removed. And 54 other seepages throughout the bluff-perched city, which can carry polluted urban runoff into the ocean, have to be dealt with. Lin said he spends all of his time on the computer these days -- when he's not in his other "office," the tennis court next to Town Hall -- poring over documents, writing grants. He and a team of other volunteers recently won a $500,000 grant to come up with a plan to deal with the runoff problems. Trinidad -- the third oldest incorporated city in California, and likely the smallest -- beat 53 other applicants, including San Diego and Los Angeles, for that grant.
"So, I'm not just retired, looking at the ocean," he said. "I can do something. This is great," he added, smiling.
The village atmosphere means close friendships, a constant flow of visitors in the Lin's solarium, and the intense feeling that one person can make a huge difference. "It's a small town, it's run by volunteers, and everybody needs to help out," Lin said. "I never participated in politics before. And all of a sudden, I felt obliged to help our town." The town does tend to polarize over big issues. "But it's a good situation -- ideal -- in which to practice democracy. Democracy's noisy, it's slow, it's chaos. But that's the way it is."
Jim Cuthbertson trundled up to Town Hall one morning last week in his electric golf cart, a couple days after the Aug. 22 council meeting, with the luxuriantly curly-coated white dog Daisy by his side. He grabbed his cane -- he has a rare nerve disease that hobbles him a bit -- and he and Daisy went inside to greet Adams and the other staff.
Cuthbertson's been on the council before, and on the planning commission. He ran, again, for council in 2004, but lost. Then about a year ago Pat Morales resigned, and friends urged him to apply. He was appointed. He has a thick cap of smooth white hair, and blue eyes set in a ruddy face. He was wearing a sweatshirt that day that said "Humboldt State Dad" -- his wife's daughters went to HSU. He wanted to talk about the budget -- his responsibility. The council, he said, should not get comfortable just because the city has an estimated $134,000 surplus now, following years of heavy debt. A 1 percent sales tax increase helped, as did the sale of two properties -- the sales tax sunsets in two years, and there's only so much land to sell.
As for the sticky mayor issue: It seems to be about procedures. But there's been ire between him and Lin for some time, he said.
"[Lin] was mad at me when I was in the audience," Cuthbertson said. "I was very strong on the water front [Lin is the city's water commissioner], and I accused the city of using $200,000 of the water fund" to pay some other debt. "He's been mad at me a long time. And I'm sorry for what he's going through. He's got a terrible disease. [Lin has Parkinson's.] But he still plays tennis, which is good. ... And he's taking this removal very personal. But ... I didn't approve of the way he was conducting the meetings. And I thought that, in some cases -- well, he didn't let me finish my statement, when I was a council member and when I was a member of the public."
Cuthbertson also accuses Lin of letting a member of the public verbally attack Councilmember Heyenga during a meeting. "There is a requirement in the Brown Act that there will be no personal attacks allowed," he said. "The mayor let that person continue, and it went on too long. Bowman and I requested a stop, and then he immediately ordered a stop." He's also mad about the day Lin declared that the council was going to use Robert's Rules of Order. Cuthbertson said he believes there are instances when the Rules could violate the Brown Act. "Chi-Wei -- he does not agree. He believes he has the right to run the meeting. Yes, he does. And he has the right to keep order -- yes, he does. But he does not have the right to change policy."
Apparently, the council already had procedures, detailed in resolution 2002-18. (To complicate matters: 2002-18 was recently rescinded. Now, some say, meetings are a free-for-all.) Meanwhile, Cuthbertson scoffs at complaints about the "3-2 vote" -- that is, Heyenga-Cuthbertson-Bowman v. Marlow-Lin. "People need to remember that, not long ago, the 3-2 vote went the other way," he said.
Cuthbertson and his wife retired to Trinidad in the mid-1990s. He worked for an aerospace company in the Bay Area for 37 years, then they searched the coast for a place to retire and found Trinidad. They built a 900-square-foot house overlooking the bay. "We're very fortunate," he said.
Right: Cell towers on Trinidad Head.
What he likes about Trinidad is its village atmosphere. Although, he said, there's been movement afoot to make "improvements." "I was under the impression they wanted a rustic town, to keep it as a village," he said. "And it's not that anymore. The houses are getting bigger, over 2,000 square feet. And one of the things I liked about it here is there's not a lot of businesses. See, I came from the Bay Area trying to get away from all that. But now they want sidewalks. I just don't want it to be asphalt and cement everywhere."
But he's tired of the politics. "If someone had told me, long ago, I'd be on a city council, I would have told them they were crazy." Ironically, it was his frequent opponent on today's council, Terry Marlow, who talked to him about running in the first place. "I enjoy working with Mr. Marlow. When I see the look on Terry's face -- he can laugh. We don't always agree, but we don't take it out of here. It stays in Town Hall."
He wishes the new council members well. "I take my hat off to them. It's not a fun job. I can assure you, I will not do it again."
In the little cove between the pier and Trinidad Head, there's a young seal who's been spotted for weeks spinning in the water. It was there, flipping over and over, last Friday morning. The Lins were eating breakfast at the Seascape Restaurant adjacent to the pier, and noted the creature's repeat appearance. A few minutes later, soon-to-be-council member Kathy Bhardwaj came in and sat at a nearby table to be interviewed. She's been in Trinidad three years -- retired from a speech pathology career in Santa Barbara. She eats at the Seascape often. A young couple from the East Coast walked in shortly after and sat at another table -- they, too, saw the baby seal, and wondered what it was up to.
And so a typical Trinidad morning began. Out on the porch, a group of old men who'd been in World War II had already had their breakfast and were, in fact, discussing the war.
Left: Soon-to-be-council member Kathy Bhardwaj.
Inside, Bhardwaj was trying to explain why she wanted to get involved in Trinidad's politics. She came here, after retirement, to be with her aging mother. "I just wanted to move here and be peaceful," she said. "And I did that for a year and it was wonderful." But then issues called -- especially the Trinidad Head cell tower. "I'm from Southern California. I've seen beautiful places be ruined by a series of poor land-use decisions. And it happened bit by bit. I just didn't want to see that happen to Trinidad."
Bhardwaj's been going to the meetings. "What bothered me about Tuesday's meeting was the sleaze," she said. "Jim Cuthbertson brought the proposal to change mayors because he said Chi-Wei Lin had violated the Brown Act. OK: That is at least potentially a criminal charge. ... What disturbed me was the lack of fairness. A person should have a right to clear his name."
Not that Bhardwaj saw Chi-Wei as the ideal mayor, under the circumstances. "He's mild-mannered, he's intellectual, he has a soft voice," said Bhardwaj, who herself has a big voice that carries. "He has Parkinson's -- so sometimes he has trouble initiating movement. I think he would be a good mayor in a cooperative group, as a moderator. He's not good in an argumentative group. He's not fast enough with the gavel. They talk over him. Jim Cuthbertson has, sometimes, shouted."
Over at the table by the window, one of the tourists -- Rob Vander Zee -- felt compelled to join the conversation. "We come from Washington, D.C.," he said. "And let me tell you: Small town, big city, it just doesn't change. Politics is bullshit everywhere. I think the problem in the United States is people have become selfish. They never think about justice. They don't think about freedom for everybody. They think about freedom for themselves. The last few years have been so polarizing in this country, you almost want to give up."
Ah, but not the new people. As Cuthbertson put it, the other day at Town Hall as he chatted with the reporter and his dog, Daisy, hung out in the other room with the city clerk: "It takes the new people to do it," he said. "Because the people who've been here awhile don't want to do it anymore."
We'll see. Of course, there's nothing that says the old-timers can't just settle back into the audience in an "advisory" role.
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