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E Pluribus Eureka 

Talking budget, blight and big box with the City Council candidates

Parents gathered on the rock-hard bleachers at Eureka High, cheering their linebacker sons and cheerleader daughters, live in a different Eureka than the one inhabited by the tattooed women over at the Shanty, downing PBRs and flaunting their bruises after a gloriously brutal Roller Derby match.

The Eureka of art patrons sipping wine at the Morris Graves isn't the same as that of the Mexican men playing soccer over at Zoe Barnum, or the woman curled up in a moldy sleeping bag in Halvorsen Park. Each group occupies its own little sub-Eureka, coexistent but distinct.

On the other hand, the struggling shopkeeper on Sixth shares the same worry as the Evergreen Pulp Mill worker, the Mervyn's clerk and the McMahan's salesperson: How will I pay my bills?
In a city that has staked its future on being able to diversify economically, clearly it has already done so socially. If there's an overarching attitude, a sort of pan-Eurekan mood, it's this: Eureka is ill at ease. Looking around, residents see longstanding questions still unanswered, nagging problems still unsolved. The town's standard irritants -- crime, meth, unemployment, homelessness -- have been around so long, most folks have just learned to live with ’em. But lately those persistent buggers have proved difficult to ignore.

Long-discussed plans for ambitious developments seem to have stalled. A series of police controversies has set citizens on edge. The prolonged (but not complete, dammit) collapse of the timber and fishing industries have left Eureka exposed to the economic elements, which are becoming more brutal by the day. Unemployment is at its highest level in more than a decade. Stores -- both local and corporate -- are downsizing or leaving altogether. The much-ballyhooed boardwalk is hardly the bustling tourist draw that was promised.

And the Marina Center. At this point, the proposed Balloon Track development, with its rumored Home Depot hub, has taken over Bigfoot's mantle as the area's most talked-about fictional entity. (A long-awaited environmental impact report is rumored to be circulating city hall.) The city's economy is in flux, and nearly every day brings another sign that the global financial Armageddon has arrived on our humble shores.

On the upside, Eurekans, the whole diverse spectrum of ’em, are a resilient bunch. Drive through the city and you'll see countless campaign signs standing earnest and proud -- primary-colored indicators of optimism and civic engagement. For all their hard luck, anger and fear, Eurekans remain hopeful -- ready and willing to work, to engage, to figure this out together.

That's the environment facing the current crop of Council candidates -- four people vying to represent two of the city's five wards. In the Second, incumbent Polly Endert looks to defend her seat against challenger Linda Atkins. In the Fourth -- being vacated by termed-out councilman Chris Kerrigan -- county coroner Frank Jäger is battling retired restaurant owner George Clark.

While theoretically nonpartisan, Eureka Council races rarely play out that way. Two years ago, an organized platform of progressives, including Mayor Peter La Vallee and council contenders Larry Glass, Ron Kuhnel and Nan Abrams, proved unsuccessful, with only Glass emerging a winner. Nevertheless, history seems to be repeating itself with Clark and Atkins running a joint campaign and characterizing the race as Democrats (them) versus Republicans (Jäger and Endert).

Current First Ward councilman Larry Glass said that once elected, politics don't matter. "People on the outside view it in very partisan terms," he said. "Inside, 95 percent of stuff you deal with doesn't shake down that way." The next council will have three main priorities, he said: "Number one is the budget; number two is the budget and number three is the budget. That's gonna consume everything."

The council recently directed city staff to look for places to cut back, including the possibility of voluntary early retirements or leaves of absence. "If that hasn't worked, we may have to look at actual layoffs," Glass explained. "Depending on how severe the shortfall of revenues, services might have to be cut back."

The Journal spoke with the candidates on a wide range of issues including the budget, the Marina Center, homelessness, crime and jobs. All gave a rote response to the budget woes, calling for a line-by-line review of spending and a search for new funding sources. And they all agree that two tax measures on the Nov. 4 ballot -- a Transactions and Use Tax (Measure D) and a Transient Occupancy Tax (Measure E) -- are crucial to the city's budget. They have sharp differences on some topics -- a Clark/Atkins proposal to raise the minimum wage by a dollar per hour for businesses with 25 or more employees, for example -- but all seem to share a sincere desire to improve Eureka, and all the sub-Eurekas contained within.

Before we get to that, a refresher on the City's wacky election process: Candidates must live in the district they aim to represent, though that representation is mostly nominal since voters citywide vote in all races. Terms are four years and elections are staggered. Two years ago, we had the odd districts and the mayoral elections; this year, just the evens.


The Second Ward encompasses the northeast corner of Eureka, including Jacobs Avenue, Halvorsen Park, Cooper Gulch and the Burre Shopping Center.

Atkins and Endert most certainly belong to different sub-Eurekas. Atkins was born in the Mojave Desert and raised in Merced and Berkeley. She spent 26 years in Sacramento working as an engineering associate for CalTrans. Politically active during her college years (late ’60s, early ’70s), she later funneled that energy into being a union negotiator. During regular visits to see her sister here in Eureka, she grew to love it. When a state job finally opened here in 2000, Atkins jumped on it. She retired in 2003.

Endert, as her campaign website proudly states, is "sixth-generation Humboldt County." She grew up here, attending Eureka High and College of the Redwoods. After earning her degree in rhetoric and communication from the University of Oregon, she returned to Eureka, where she lives with her husband and their three daughters. She is general manager of Quality Inn on Fourth Street.

Two years ago, in a semi-confused, semi-controversial process, Endert was appointed to the Council by newly elected Mayor Virginia Bass to fill the seat she (Bass) was leaving behind. To seal the appointment, the rest of the Council had to approve of Endert, which they did unanimously. Since then, Endert has worked extensively on public safety issues, helping to negotiate a new labor agreement with the fire and police departments, one that will bring their wages in line with cities of similar size and demographics.

Both candidates agree that Eureka needs to improve its economy, but differ on how. Atkins and Clark say boosting the minimum wage to nine dollars per hour (applicable to businesses with 25 or more employees) would work as a "bottom-up" approach to improving the economy. They point to studies that conclude modest raises in the minimum wage have historically had few if any negative effects on employment.

Endert is skeptical. She believes that retailers would simply pass the extra expense along to consumers. Instead, she suggests making Eureka as business-friendly as possible. While she declined to state a position on the Marina Center before the EIR and public input, she did indicate that she's not opposed to a big box retailer. "For some reason, ‘development' seems to be a bad word in this community," Endert said. "We need to look at everything ... look at big box, little box. We just need to ask the question, ‘Is it good for Eureka?'"

Atkins, on the other hand, said the city needs to "break the cycle of retail-only jobs" by focusing on small-scale manufacturing, particularly in the area of the "new energy economy." An industrial park would allow the city to create its own niche, she said, while giving employees higher-wage jobs. "Then those people can go spend money at retail stores that makes the sales tax that makes the world go ’round," Atkins said. "We don't really need to be building more stores for retail," she reasoned. "We have empty storefronts. We have empty malls."

On the homelessness issue, Atkins said she is interested in the idea of a designated camp area where homeless people could sleep, bathe and do laundry. It's a project recently endorsed by Police Chief Garr Nielsen. "The question is ‘Where?'" Atkins said. "That would be the tricky part." The inextricably linked issue of substance abuse calls for a detox facility and regulated sober living housing, Atkins said.

Endert said the homelessness issue needs to be dissected in order to address substance abuse and mental health aspects separately. Tackling homelessness was a top priority for Endert when she joined the Council, but it has proved a tough nut to crack. She and Glass created a homelessness task force, but, she said, cooperation from the county, which handles issues of public health, has not been forthcoming.

A few areas of agreement: Both candidates say the city needs to expand its Problem Oriented Policing program in order to combat meth and violent crime, and both call for independent oversight of the police department to restore public confidence, which Nielsen also supports.

Perhaps the most quarrelsome point between the two candidates has been campaign financing, with each side crying foul. Endert and Jäger have called for campaign finance reform, urging a limit of $500 per donor. They have pointed to contributions from Bill Pierson, owner of Pierson Building Supply, to both Clark and Atkins -- $7,500 and $1,500, respectively. The conventional wisdom is that Pierson wants a Council that will reject a Home Depot since the big box retailer would provide unwelcome competition.

In a letter to supporters, Atkins countered that it's the other side with the advantage. "This disingenuous campaign funding reform proposal only benefits Republicans Jäger and Endert," she wrote. While she and Clark rely on a few generous benefactors, their opponents have "a seemingly endless list of $500 contributions," which she suggested come from wealthy developer pals who simply spread their copious Benjamins among many donors.

Atkins is at a disadvantage financially. According to the most recent disclosure forms, Endert had raised nearly $20,000 in cash contributions compared to Atkins' $3,637. (Atkins loaned her campaign an additional $4,500.)

Of course six generations in the area makes for a lot of family and friends. "I've been criticized for who's donated to my campaign -- realtors and developers. Well I've got five realtors in my family [and] they've all been kind enough to donate," Endert explained. "She [Atkins] probably doesn't know that. ... I just have to start laughing. Literally this is family and friends."

While a family connection doesn't eliminate concerns of bias, Endert insists that she brings no political agenda to the Council. "I don't feel beholden to anybody," she said. Still, she admits to a fondness for developers. "These are the people who are gonna make jobs," she said. "They underwrite things; they sponsor stuff; they put a lot of money in this community."

Regarding the lump sum from Pierson, Atkins also insists there's no reciprocity expected. Unlike Endert, who said she hasn't directly asked anyone for a dime, Atkins said she approached Pierson "because I knew he'd backed Democrats in the past and he had money."

If neither candidate has an early opinion on the Marina Center, you can bet that their donors do.


The Fourth Ward,which includes the municipal golf course and environs, is a dogleg-shaped district covering the mostly residential area east of F Street (minus a chunk that belongs to the Third), west of Harrison and south of Carson.

With 38 years in law enforcement, including the past 10 as the county coroner, Jäger epitomizes the old fashioned lawman. His deliberative, seen-it-all demeanor borders on mild-mannered, which some see as a sign of competence, others complacence.

Set to retire from the coroner's office in December, Jäger decided to pursue Kerrigan's empty Council seat to "see what I could do to help Eureka." He believes the city needs leaders with experience and the ability to represent a diverse group of people. "I think I can do that a lot better than my opponent can," Jäger said.

Clark has lived in Eureka for 35 years. He and his wife used to own Kyoto, a Japanese restaurant on F Street that posted liberal political cartoons in the hallway. Raised in Redlands, Clark was on his own at age 15 after his father, who suffered from emphysema, died of a heart attack. He says that the "social safety net," which provided him with housing, health care and education, is absent in Eureka.

"What we're telling young people is that you can't have affordable housing; you can't have a free college education or dependable transportation, but you can have two jobs in Eureka and still not be able to afford the essentials," Clark said. That's where his minimum wage increase comes in. "The minimum wage has not increased adjusted for inflation since 1968," he said.

Recalling the difficulty he had opening his own restaurant, Clark said the City needs to make it easier to start new businesses. He envisions an entrepreneurial business center in Eureka, with funding from the Eureka Redevelopment Agency, the Headwaters Fund and the Humboldt Area Foundation. Like Atkins, Clark feels that a "manufacturing incubator" would foster economic self-sufficiency, which would help solve a slew of other issues.

"Public safety, housing, crime, gangs -- it all goes back to the economy," Clark said. He calls for a coalition of union leaders, business owners, investors and government officials. "No one has thought to bring all these people to the same table," Clark said. "We need to think of public interests, not individual interests."

Jäger's tone is either more cynical or more pragmatic, depending on your perspective. "A lot of politicians -- and I guess I could count myself among them -- say they're gonna create jobs and get business going," Jäger said. "I can't think of a single job the Council has ever created. Jobs are created by businesses." It's the Council's job, he said, to make the process easier by eliminating red tape and creating a business-friendly environment.

That doesn't include Clark's minimum wage increase, which he calls a "job killer." "I think it's a great idea if businesses can afford to do that," Jäger said. "But to force them, they'll just pass that [extra cost] along to the consumers, and it could result in a reduction in the number of employees." Regarding Clark's list of studies, Jäger said, "It's easy to quote studies that might not even apply to us."

They're also having the campaign funding argument, though in this race the "progressive" candidate, Clark, has a slight financial edge over "Republican" Jäger, $20,754 to $17,804. (However, with the fees Clark has paid to Kerrigan and Associates and Campaign Manager Alec Johnson -- yes, the outgoing councilman's political consultancy is running the joint Clark-Atkins campaign -- Jäger actually has more cash on hand down the stretch.)

Jäger said all you have to do to see he's not influenced by money is look at his previous tenure on the Council (1992-1998). He reiterated that almost all of his donations have been $500 or less. He even declined donations offered by the Arkley family because of the Marina Center project. "When you look at the other side," Jäger said, "if somebody gives you $7,000, they're not giving that because they like the sushi he makes. They want something in return."

Clark denies that. "As far as Bill Pierson goes, I've never once seen him have anything in front of the Council. The people on my opponents' side routinely have things in front of the Council," he said. Of course, the Marina Center would not technically be Pierson's project, though he'd certainly have an interest. Clark described Pierson as simply an old friend with shared values.

After the usual caveats about the EIR and public input, Clark said that the Marina Center project should depend on proper cleanup and should favor local over national stores. When asked if he's categorically opposed to a big box retailer, Clark demurred: "I'd rather say what I'm for," he said.

Jäger's not even sure the project will happen. "With the problems of Security National, the downturn in the stock market, even [financial problems with] Home Depot, the Marina Center could be in trouble," Jäger said. He stressed, however, that this was mostly just a "gut feeling."

Jäger raised eyebrows during a KEET debate when he declared, "The City of Eureka doesn't have a homeless problem. We have a drug problem, a mental health problem, a job problem and an enabling problem." Seizing on the first sentence, Clark's campaign manager issued a press release that said, in essence, "There is too."

Jäger protested that his comment was taken out of context. "Of course there are homeless," he said. In his opinion, homelessness is a symptom of systemic problems. "And it's not like we haven't worked to help them," he said. "There's the MAC [Multiple Assistance Center], the Serenity Inn. We have vets' programs, drug rehab programs. We've done lots and lots to assist homeless people."

Clark said that may be true, but none of it is working. He sees a homeless camp as an idea worth trying. "There are going to be problems," he admitted. "We'll have to deal with policing, health and safety measures, and figure out how to pay for it. But right now, it's not working -- chasing individual cars and vans, impounding them and making people completely homeless. It's difficult to enforce, it's not sanitary and it's not safe."

When asked his opinion on the camp idea, Jäger chuckled derisively. "We gotta be very careful," he said. "The South Spit [homeless encampment] was an ecological disaster." He called the organized camp a "nice idea" but said it would require strict controls, which could prove difficult. "A lot of these people don't want to deal with authority," Jäger said.

As the conversation wound down, Jäger turned again to the issue of the budget. Letting out a deep sigh, he said, "Sometimes I think you've got to be careful what you wish for. You might get it. This is gonna be a tough job." Like Glass, Jäger said the budget is his biggest worry, but added that he's confident in the Council's ability to figure it out.

"The main thing is that, better than anybody else, I can represent everybody in this City," Jäger said. "I've proven that in the past, and I'm not gonna change that in the future."

Undoubtedly, each of the other three candidates, all of whom to some extent reside in their own sub-Eureka, would make the same claim. Sitting coolly on the sidelines, Glass has chosen not to endorse any of the candidates since he'll have to work with whoever wins. But he's not worried about the outcome. "I've met and talked with all four," he said, "and I believe I can work with any of them."

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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