click to enlarge ( from left to right ) Cliff Berkowitz, Rex Bohn
  • ( from left to right ) Cliff Berkowitz, Rex Bohn

Two-term incumbent Rex Bohn and radio personality Cliff Berkowitz, who cofounded Lost Coast Communications, are vying to represent the First District in this year's March 3 primary election.

Encompassing a sprawling area that stretches from the far reaches of Shelter Cove to the more urban neighborhoods of Cutten, the First District hasn't seen a contested race since 2012, when Bohn beat Wiyot tribal elder Cheryl A. Seidner and retired teacher Annette De Modena in a three-way contest for the seat being vacated by the retiring Jimmy Smith.

With Election Day just around the corner, the Journal recently interviewed Berkowitz and Bohn, asking each the same four questions on issues affecting the region: infrastructure and road maintenance, homelessness, climate change in the aftermath of the denial of Terra-Gen's Humboldt Wind Energy Project and the economy — especially amid the cannabis industry's transition into the legal market.

Read the candidate's abridged responses on those topics below, as well as their answers to a questionnaire canvassing everything from their favorite movie to the reasons why they see themselves as the best candidate for the job.

NCJ: With the county facing a budget deficit projected to reach $20.5 million by the end of fiscal year 2023, how can the county address road and infrastructure maintenance issues that can be especially acute in the far-flung areas of Humboldt?

BERKOWITZ: Noting the budget is always a "big issue," Berkowitz says the situation has not been helped by a series of "poor personnel decisions" that have resulted in hits to the county's coffers. As examples, Berkowitz pointed to the $25,000 payout to former Public Defender David Marcus, whose credentials were the subject of a lawsuit before his resignation, and how County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck continues to draw his nearly $200,000 annual salary while on paid leave for nearly a year.

"That alone is an enormous amount of waste," Berkowitz says, adding that "Job One of a supervisor is making good personnel decisions" and the board needs to do a better job "vetting the people we hire."

That said, Berkowitz says the county needs to develop a comprehensive repair and maintenance plan rather than continue the current course of short-term fixes, like hot patching, which leaves a "net result of road conditions continuing to deteriorate."

BOHN: The incumbent says the county is digging itself out of the deferred maintenance rut left by the recession — a situation compounded by the halving of its road crew staff and equipment barn locations over the last two decades or so.

Bohn says "the good news" is the road budget has increased every year since he's held office and the sales tax income from Measure Z (later Measure O) "has also been a benefit."

Funds from Senate Bill 1 (a $54 billion legislative package to fix roads, freeways and bridges over the next decade) are also coming online for the first full year, Bohn says, which will boost the county roads budget by about 25 percent.

"Infrastructure is a big, big deal, especially with the storms we've had the last couple of years," Bohn says, adding the county has been successful in applying for FEMA funds and is looking at options like using contractors in far-flung areas to cut down on the daily set up/take down time and move projects along more quickly.

NCJ: What can the county government do to promote economic growth and — with the stress and pressure the local cannabis industry is going through — what can/should county government do to bring producers into compliance, support those who are already in the process and crack down on those who are not?

BERKOWITZ: He says the county "really needs to focus on the local small businesses, which are the backbone of the local economy and always have been," rather than the "big, flashy corporation to save us all," which he charges is what Bohn seems to be looking for.

Berkowitz says he's not against welcoming new industries or companies, emphasizing the possibilities of green energy, to the Humboldt table, but adds it's "absolutely critical that they belong in the area, that they comply with environmental law and that they comply with what makes Humboldt County Humboldt County."

Saying he understands the hurdles involved in starting a new business, Berkowitz believes the county should look at hiring a small business ombudsperson to help prospective owners "navigate all the hoops and regulations," noting it can be "very daunting."

That office could also serve as a sort of "help line" to answer questions about issues like financing or employment law, he says.

On the cannabis front, Berkowitz says, "we need to completely retool the process" and start regulating cannabis from an "agricultural standpoint."

He says that it is "nearly impossible" for smaller operations to come into compliance under the current system and the county needs to look at possible lifelines for Humboldt farmers growing a crop with a reputation for quality decades in the making, perhaps creating a separate ombudsperson position just for the cannabis industry.

He says the county needs to look at options, like giving farmers permits on the front end and allowing them one to two years to come into compliance.

"That way they are not cash poor and they can do the right thing," Berkowitz says.

BOHN: Noting that he has always said, "We need to let people know that Humboldt County is open for business," Bohn points to the hiring of an economic development director, who he says was responsible for bringing Nordic Aquafarms to town and works to help those types of proposals through the permitting process.

"Obviously, it has to be the right business," Bohn says, adding that he means one that is "environmentally friendly, good to the community and, hopefully, pays a lot of taxes and high wages."

He notes that Humboldt not only has land but the benefit of two "high-caliber" higher education institutions in Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods ready and able to produce a skilled workforce.

Bohn says the "cannabis industry is an important part of the community" and the county's Planning and Building Department is "always looking for ways to streamline the process or make it less stressful."

He points to the county's efforts to bolster the industry via Project Trellis, which works on branding and marketing, as well as providing loans to help farmers come into regulatory compliance since they "have no opportunity to borrow money from a bank."

"The great thing Humboldt County does is work with different trade organizations in the industry to make this industry into a tax paying, legal business," Bohn says, adding the county has also aided the ability of smaller farmers to form cooperatives for processing, tracking and transporting their products.

"The quote I hear most often is, 'It's hard to put a price on your peace of mind,'" Bohn says. "Going into the legal market will give you peace of mind."

NCJ: What should the county do to address the effects of climate change, especially following the denial of Terra-Gen's Humboldt Wind Energy Project (a wind farm proposed for the hills above Rio Dell and Scotia), which showed divisions in the region on the issue?

BERKOWITZ: Most Humboldt County residents recognize the threat of climate change, Berkowitz says, adding that he also knows there are those who don't believe the dire warnings, pointing to a county planning commissioner appointed by Bohn who Berkowitz describes as "a known climate denier, which is kind of amazing."

As far as Terra-Gen goes, Berkowitz says it was disappointing to see how the project "pitted environmentalists against each other because we are in a climate crisis ... but you can't trade one environmental disaster for another."

"Not all green projects are the same and this one was an environmental disaster," he says, adding the "topper was the Wiyot Nation saying it was on sacred ground."

"That should be a no-go," Berkowitz says, adding that "most countries that use wind power are doing so offshore and are doing so successfully."

He says he'd like to look at projects like salt marsh restoration, which is "inexpensive and very effective" in combating issues like washover, especially with Humboldt Bay sinking and sea level rise happening faster than originally anticipated.

Noting the North Coast has been dubbed a "ground zero" for the crisis, Berkowitz says he believes the county needs to start coming up with a blueprint for how to address impacts of climate change.

That will put the county in a prime position to vie for available federal or state funds, he says, adding that he's learned from his time working on promoting regional trail systems that "if you have shovel-ready projects, you get funding."

"We need to start a long-term plan," he says.

BOHN: As far as the Terra-Gen project (which he voted to approve), Bohn says in retrospect, "Maybe I thought this was a project that would work now and was privately funded.

"Terra-Gen is gone. Terra-Gen came and they went through process," he continues, noting some people feel it went too quickly, but he thinks the county building and planning department did its job. "The process, I feel, worked because they are not here. The people spoke and it's not here."

While the wind farm might have been a project that could help move the county away from fossil fuel, the community needs to talk about sea level rise and climate change for the county's future, Bohn says.

"I think the seriousness of the issue right now needs to be addressed and a big part of that is education," he says, noting the vulnerability of the area's dikes and sea walls. "So, I certainly hope the Coastal Commission will realize the situation and can react as fast as I believe the citizens of Humboldt County are going to develop a plan."

(When asked, Bohn says he believes his planning commission appointee, Alan Bongio, has been "very balanced" in his decisions and that he has not personally heard him make comments about climate change.)

Whether the county looks to microgrids, solar, wind power at another location, wave power, or some combination thereof, Bohn says there needs to be collaboration to move forward.

He notes the county is forming a Climate Advisory Committee and he has possible nominees already in mind: David Simpson and Jane Lapiner of Petrolia, who have attended the United Nations climate conferences.

"There are a lot of avenues out there that might help but with that we also have to find a way to fund it, and with that working with the community and the environment to have as little impact as possible," Bohn says. "I look forward to that venture."

NCJ: Homelessness is a nationwide problem but also an acute one in Humboldt County. What steps can county government take to address this issue?

BERKOWITZ: One of the first ways to address homelessness is moving toward a "Housing First" model, Berkowitz says, noting he is a big supporter of the concept and believes it pays dividends across the board.

The idea, he says, is simple: Get people into housing as quickly as possible while connecting them with the services they need, laying the groundwork for a successful transition. (The board of supervisors voted to adopt the strategy back in 2016.)

"Having access to a shower, having an address, means, at that point, you can start looking for a job and moving out of this," Berkowitz says. "It's been shown to be very successful."

The supervisors, Berkowitz says, have the ability to say, "We are in a crisis" and take action to respond, for example, by creating a tiny housing village to quickly move people off the streets, noting the county has available land.

"This is an investment in the community as a whole because it actually costs less to do this than to be reactive in dealing with the problems that can occur when people are camping illegally, being arrested, causing problems, theft," Berkowitz says. "It's a benefit to the entire community, not just the ones we are helping."

BOHN: He points to the county's work to house 175 individuals with severe mental illnesses, utilizing $3.5 million in United States Department of Housing and Urban Development funding, which he said resulted in an almost 42-percent decline in admissions to Sempervirens, the county's only mental health hospital.

And, he says, a 140-unit complex for veterans is in the works.

Bohn says his "longstanding work" with local philanthropist Betty Chinn, who has spent decades dedicated to helping Humboldt's homeless, has helped him better understand the issue.

He sees great potential in using motels for transitional housing opportunities in the region, saying they work well on a number of levels, including being able to provide onsite assistance.

"The big issue is trying to get roofs over as many heads as possible and then provide those services," Bohn says.

FIRST DISTRICT QUESTIONAIRES:


Cliff Berkowitz
  • Cliff Berkowitz
Cliff Berkowitz

What are the two biggest challenges facing the First District and what are your plans to address them?

Roads and infrastructure, and dealing with sea level rise due to the climate crisis. Our roads are being managed in a continuous state of crisis management, patching potholes when people complain and doing so with an inferior "cold patch" that only lasts a rainstorm or two before needing to be patched again. This is a huge waste of money because it is not effective. We need long-term road maintenance plan, where we actually properly repair the roads over time. Finding the funds won't be easy, but we can start by cutting down on the enormous amount of waste by making flawed personnel decisions. We also need to stop diverting millions of dollars that could be spent on our roads to new projects. Next, sea level rise is already affecting our coast and low-lying areas. We must act now to adapt these vulnerable places. Next, we need to begin long-term planning for 10 and 20 years down the road. These fixes will be expensive, the state and federal government will need to help with that. Communities that have "shovel ready" projects when the time comes will get the funding.

What is county government's largest flaw in responding to residents' needs and how do you plan to fix it?

One of the biggest issues facing this and other counties is the homeless issue. We can't just clean up an area and think the problem will go away. I am a big believer in the "Housing First" approach to dealing with homelessness. Getting people off the street and into shelter first, then dealing with their underlying issues has proven to work in many places. Pasadena in Southern California has had good success, as has Utah, where they saw over a 90 percent reduction in homelessness. Once people have a roof over their heads, they then can access the services they need. We are doing this on a small scale now with the work of Betty Chin, Sean Swanson and the River Life Foundation and the Eureka Rescue Mission. But we need a larger scale effort with public/private partnerships. This is an investment in a better quality of life for everyone in the county, not just the down and out. Everybody wins.

Why are you the right person to represent the First District for the next four years?

I have spent decades in community service, started a business that created jobs and have been a conduit of information during emergencies, and while all this is good, that's not the job of a supervisor. A supervisor is there to make policy, to give staff clear direction and trust them to do their jobs, and to facilitate community conversation among all people. My vision is a locally based, uniquely Humboldt, healthy, environmentally sound, thriving, sustainable, diverse and respectful community. Humboldt County is at a crossroads right now with crumbling infrastructure and climate change knocking at the door. This is not the time for the status quo. I have been a leader for years in the private sector. I believe in long-term planning and systems to avoid being is crisis mode when we should be doing scheduled work. I stand for complete transparency in land use decisions, and I am a consensus builder who has made a career talking to a diversity of people on a variety of issues. As I've said publicly, I firmly believe that Humboldt County's best days are still ahead of us.

Age: 62

City/town of residence: Cutten

Where did you grow up? Southern California

How long have you lived in Humboldt County? 26 years

Can you please provide a brief education history? 

Attended Saddleback Community College, Fresno State University

Can you please provide a brief work history? 

Radio professional more than 40 years; national radio consultant, worked in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and other California communities; co-founded Lost Coast Communications; put KHUM on the air, serving as morning host and VP of operations; lecturer at Humboldt State University in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications since fall of 2008.

What is your current occupation? Lecturer at HSU and full-time candidate.

What do you consider the three most important endorsements you have received to date in your campaign for county supervisor? 

Wes Chesboro, Cheryl Seidner, Humboldt Del Norte Central Labor Council

Now, a few questions to give voters a taste of your personality:

What is your favorite movie? 

Pleasantville.

What is your favorite book? The Harry Potter series.

What magazine do you read most regularly? I don't read magazines regularly, but I do read news: North Coast Journal, Lost Coast Outpost, Washington Post, New York Times.

If your campaign had a theme song, what would it be? "We Are Family."

Who is your favorite fictional politician? Jed Bartlett (The West Wing).

Who is your favorite real-life politician? JFK

Dogs or cats? DOGS (we have three rescues)

What is your favorite hobby? Photography

What would your superpower be and how would you use it? I would be Carbon Sequestration Man! I would use my powers to grow old forests and restore the health of the ocean and rivers to stem the climate crisis.

If you could sum up your candidacy in a single haiku, what would it be?

Local and sustainable

We need to work

together now

Rex Bohn
  • Rex Bohn
Rex Bohn

What are the two biggest challenges facing the First District and what are your plans to address them?

The biggest challenges are infrastructure, roads, homeless, mental health and climate change. Good things are happening for roads. After 20 years of cuts, closures of county yards and reductions in staff size, the last eight years have shown improvement with increased spending due to Measure Z and — coming up — our first full year of Senate Bill 1 funding. The tides have turned. When I came into office in 2012, the deferred maintenance was staggering and we are looking ahead to chip away at it. The effort to get more services is an ongoing challenge for mental health, homelessness and addiction. The state's new "Drug Medi-Cal (DMC)" program will assist significantly in the task of treating addiction. New funding coming from the governor's office will allow the county to do more to get people off the streets and into services. Additionally, the county is partnering with our cities, which puts our region in a better position to leverage additional funding from California's Local Housing Trust Fund Program. We can't forget climate change and sea-level rise. These are also huge issues that we're working to address through the county's Climate Action Plan.

What is county government's largest flaw in responding to residents' needs and how do you plan to fix it?

County Government is public service. Quick response to all correspondence, verbal or written, and accountability are the county's best avenues to providing services. So many of the tasks we are providing are specific to the county, such as business licenses, permits, waivers, etc. Just because we are the only ones providing the services, we need to ensure that customer service is job number one. With that, Humboldt County is lucky to have great staff who reflect customer service daily. We, as supervisors, hopefully, can provide our departmental staff with the tools to do just that, such as upgraded Wi-Fi, phone and computer equipment, and workstations, all of which is a tall order with today's budget and in anticipation reduced revenues.

Why are you the right person to represent the First District for the next four years?

I have had overwhelming support during the last eight years. I have gained and lost supporters because I will think outside of the box. I am open, approachable and I have been providing community service for Humboldt County for over 48 years — since I was 17 years old and coached my first youth basketball team. Even if we don't agree, your input, perspective and ideas are essential. And in all honesty, I can change my mind, because I am open to change. I know my district. I have done a lot of things in my district, that not necessarily in the county's wheelhouse, but sufficiently in mine. I have worked with a lot of people because of my charitable work and youth activities, which is one of the best sounding boards I have. I won't avoid a conversation on issues that are challenging to us all. I get things done.

Age: 65

City/town of residence: Unincorporated county, Cutten area

Where did you grow up? Humboldt County

How long have you lived in Humboldt County? 63 years

Can you please provide a brief education history? Local elementary and high school, and an AA degree from College of the Redwoods

Can you please provide a brief work history? 

Almost entirely family, locally owned businesses

What is your current occupation? First District Supervisor

What do you consider the three most important endorsements you have received to date in your campaign for county supervisor? 1) the mayors of Fortuna and Arcata because it shows my ability to work across the aisle 2) Public safety unions 3) My family

Now, a few questions to give voters a taste of your personality:

What is your favorite movie? Man From Snowy River

What is your favorite book? Anything by James Patterson

What magazine do you read most regularly Ducks Unlimited

If your campaign had a theme song, what would it be? "Common Man" by John Conlee

Who is your favorite fictional politician? Mayor Randall Winston from the show Spin City

Who is your favorite real-life politician: Supervisor Jimmy Smith!!

Dogs or cats? (No answer provided)

What is your favorite hobby? (No answer provided)

What would your superpower be and how would you use it? (No answer provided)

If you could sum up your candidacy in a single haiku, what would it be? (No answer provided)

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Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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