If Humboldt County's Fifth District were a state all its own -- and some residents might like that just fine -- its reputation would certainly be robust. At 1,556 square miles, covering the county's vast rural north from McKinleyville to the Del Norte County line, from craggy coastline to foothills of the Trinity Alps, the Fifth is slightly larger than Rhode Island. Its land incorporates Redwood National Park, Six Rivers National Forest, Prairie Creek, Patrick's Point, Trinidad...we could go on, but you get the idea: This is easily one of the most beautiful regions in the world.
And it can be a bear to govern. The Klamath Settlement, a landmark agreement to remove four dams and restore salmon fisheries along the Klamath River, serves as merely the most recent illustration of the many groups with a stake in this land, from its six (!) tribal entities to the state and national governments, private and corporate land interests, farmers, fishermen and, last if not least, a precarious natural ecosystem. Superimposed on this web are economic and social issues including poverty and under-performing schools in rural areas like Hoopa and Orleans; infrastructure needs in towns like Blue Lake and Willow Creek; marijuana grow houses and growing pains in McKinleyville; and the entire region connected to the outside world by hairpin freeways and a tenuous fiber optic filament.
Politically the Fifth cants warily left, as if to counterbalance those plywood cowboys leaning in repose against many a Mack-town garage. Forty-five percent of the District's 16,139 voters are registered Democrats while 25 percent are Republicans. A full 21 percent decline to state an affiliation, which makes their attitudes and votes difficult to predict. The political dividing lines for county supervisor -- theoretically a nonpartisan office -- are splitting along rifts surrounding the county's languishing General Plan Update. Now in its 13th year, the re-write of the county's constitution has largely degenerated into a propaganda melee between "progressives," who are pushing for slow growth with more infill development, and "conservatives," who advocate fewer land use restrictions.
Factor in a recession that's rapidly draining government coffers and it's somewhat surprising that anyone in his right mind would seek the reins from departing Supervisor Jill Duffy ($79,200 annual salary aside).
"The fact of the matter," Duffy said over coffee last week, "is you'll work harder, you'll travel more and you will juggle more challenges than almost anybody will ever experience." That juggling act, which includes simultaneous service on 20-odd boards and committees, makes 50- to 60-hour work weeks pretty standard, Duffy said. Yet four brave souls are responding to the call of public service:
Pat Higgins, 59 -- brash, passionate fisheries biologist, former stereo salesman and first-term Harbor Commissioner.
Patrick Cleary, 52 -- affable CEO of Lost Coast Communications, ex-chair of the Headwaters Fund board and folk music-loving Wall Street refugee.
Ryan Sundberg, 35 -- soft-spoken insurance agent, member of the Trinidad Rancheria Tribal Council and McKinleyville man to his bones.
And Jeffrey Lytle, 40 -- home builder, local blog denizen, government skeptic and self-styled no-budget champion of the common man.
The Journal spoke with each candidate at length, mining for specifics on such key issues as jobs, infrastructure, land use, marijuana and the environment. While the differences in rhetoric and philosophy are sometimes subtle, their personalities are strikingly distinct. And if you have any doubts about what's at stake in this election, consider that nearly $100,000 has been raised by these candidates (well, three of ’em), with oodles more certain to flow in before the June 8 primary -- and, in all likelihood, a November runoff.
From the window of Pat Higgins' office on the fourth floor of the Jacoby Storehouse you get a bird's eye view of Arcata's west side -- the post office directly below, the old creamery building in the middle distance, the grassy bottoms beyond and on a clear day the razor horizon of the Pacific. Higgins sits at his desk, his back to the window, surrounded by little piles of paperwork -- watershed reports, spiral-ring notebooks, CD-ROMs.
In his time on the Harbor Commission, and during his unsuccessful run for Fifth District Supervisor four years ago, Higgins has earned a reputation for plainspokenness. "Playing jazz," he calls his conversational style -- a boisterous back-and-forth peppered with f-bombs and jaunty sobriquets like "brother," "man" and "baby." His wife, he admits, tells him to do more listening, but Higgins sees his Rat Pack bravado as an asset; as his campaign brochure declares, "You know where Pat stands."
His vision for the Fifth is informed by his career as a fisheries scientist. In studying watershed habitats throughout the Pacific Northwest, Higgins has grown keenly aware of the impacts of human behavior on the natural world. (Regarding river pollution he says, "When we can't go swim in the Van Duzen, we are oh-pressed, baby.") He opposes the Klamath settlement, calling it insufficient, but elsewhere he sees opportunities for more resource extraction. For example, he believes the state's Marine Life Protection Act, as implemented down south, would be overly restrictive here on the North Coast. Instead, he suggests fewer, larger preserves, which he says would allow the local fishing industry to expand.
"I think we can restore nature -- the natural balance of cycles -- and at the same time make a buck," he says. "That's really the litmus test for sustainability."
Higgins opposed the Harbor District's proposal to build a massive marine terminal and, after participating in a new economic development report, has instead voiced support for a scaled-down harbor model based on short-sea shipping. He also sees job potential in and around the Bay in the form of an aquaculture park and a historic train that would run from the Samoa Roundhouse to the Arcata Marsh. And he believes the county can double its organic agricultural production, provided we don't shoot ourselves in the foot with the General Plan Update. (He vividly remembers his HSU soils professor taking his class to a Valley West parking lot, pointing to the ground and saying, "This is the best dirt in Humboldt County.")
While the timber industry is far from dead, Higgins believes we must change our style of logging to foster forest health. "Our watersheds have never looked like they do now, and we're talking a million years," he says. "We need to go out there and nurture forest health very purposefully and at the same time link that to economic development." That includes establishing more community forests, he says, like one between McKinleyville and Fieldbrook.
Higgins calls the marijuana economy "another bubble" and says regardless of its legal status we need to focus on diversifying our economy so we're more resilient. He's also calling for more alternative energy production, particularly biomass, and is a strong trails proponent. (He's been working with the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee to develop a resolution advocating transfer of railroad rights-of-way from the North Coast Railroad Authority to a county entity like the Harbor District of the Humboldt County Association of Governments.) And he says it's time to finally establish the McKinleyville Advisory Committee, which was authorized in 2002 as a conduit between the town and the Board of Supervisors but has never been implemented.
As of March 22, when the most recent campaign disclosure statements were filed, Higgins had raised $5,244, the majority of which came either from him and his wife ($1,500) or his employer, William Kier of Kier Associates ($2,000). His expenditures thus far have been primarily on advertising and a $750 payment to progressive political action committee Local Solutions. His endorsements come mostly from the left side of local politics, including former Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas, enviro activist Ken Miller and former Northcoast Environmental Center Executive Director Greg King.
By 1997, Patrick Cleary was ready to leave Wall Street. Since graduating from Georgetown University in 1979 he'd been working as an investment banker specializing in telecommunications. Based mostly in Manhattan, he'd worked in London, Iceland, India and Hong Kong. But by the late ’90s Wall Street was becoming more cutthroat, and he was ready to split.
Using a list of criteria -- university town, rural but not backwoods, near water, with an airport -- he'd identified some possible relocation spots. "This was at the beginning of the Internet, and [online] I found this place called Patrick's Point," Cleary says, holding a cup of coffee the size of a small mixing bowl. "I decided that, if I was looking for a sign, maybe this was it."
He spent his first year in Humboldt getting to know people and learning to play the guitar. In his second, he attempted to launch a venture capital fund. "I got a fairly warm response," Cleary recalls, "[but] one meeting summed it up best. Somebody said, 'That's a great idea. Who are you?'" Laughing heartily he says, "I decided perhaps it would be a good idea to do some things locally."
That he has. In the years since, Cleary has worked alternately as interim general manager of the North Coast Co-op, member of the Big Lagoon Community Services District, chair of the Headwaters Fund board of directors, president of the Humboldt Folklife Society and interim GM of KHSU. As president of Lost Coast Communications, Inc. (LCCI), which includes local radio stations KHUM, KSLUG, KXGO and "The Point," he's helped double the company workforce in the last seven years.
Of those tenures, the one that garners the most scrutiny is his chairmanship of the Headwaters Fund, the county's $20 million economic development kitty. While the board's methods and certain decisions have been questioned ($500,000 to lure Delta Air Lines briefly, $100,000 for a Harbor District feasibility study), Cleary says the fund has put $13 million to work on such successful endeavors as expanding the Arcata-McKinleyville Airport, nurturing the local grass-fed beef industry and financing water system upgrades in Willow Creek and Rio Dell.
The county is at a critical turning point, Cleary says. While the timber industry remains vital, he believes "we need to be looking forward to technology-based jobs, knowledge-based jobs -- that's where the world is going." Cleary helped facilitate a plan to run broadband fiber east-west along Highway 36 -- a project he says will be completed by next June. He feels the county should help foster "a new wave of entrepreneurialism" and focus on training young people to fill skilled jobs positions, as the Headwaters Fund is doing through "The 20/20 Initiative," a program designed to encourage local students to pursue higher education.
With a population likely to top Arcata's in the 2010 census, McKinleyville should be treated like a city, Cleary says, with an advisory committee, a dedicated county planner and admittance into the Humboldt County Association of Governments (along with Hoopa). Addressing infrastructure needs, he says, will help bridge the gap between the polarized factions on either side of the General Plan debate. And he has vowed to push through the Annie and Mary trail from Arcata to Blue Lake as the first step in a network of new bicycle trails.
Cleary raised $20,357 through March 22, including a $5,000 loan to himself and $5,000 from the Blue Lake Rancheria, which owns 43 percent of LCCI. (He says the rancheria rarely has business before the board, and if it did, he would recuse himself.) His key endorsements include former state Assemblymember Patty Berg, two former supervisors (John Woolley and Julie Fulkerson), current Supervisor Mark Lovelace and HSU President Rollin Richmond.
"I think my challenge is name recognition," Cleary says. While some locals wear lifelong residency as a badge of honor, Cleary says there's a lot to be learned in the outside world. "I've done business in over 40 states and 13 countries," he says. "I don't think we have all the answers here."
This last comment no doubt was aimed at Ryan Sundberg, who's proud to have lived nowhere but McKinleyville. "My parents are from here; my grandparents are from here; my wife's parents and grandparents are from here. I'm hoping my children and grandchildren grow up here," Sundberg says. (Their daughter turns 5 this month.) Mellow and unassuming, Sundberg sits on a couch at his campaign headquarters, a two-room office space in McKinleyville's Bella Vista Plaza, while his more animated campaign manager, Richard Mostranski, putters about nearby.
"I'm more in touch with what people need," Sundberg says. "I know people in Orleans, Hoopa, Orick. I have family and friends in all those communities." If he's elected, those people will provide direct connections to the far reaches of the county, he says. "They can pick up the phone any time they want to."
The line on Sundberg thus far has been that he's the conservative candidate, an assumption bolstered by his list of campaign donors, which includes development interests like Humboldt Redwood Co. and Jim Furtado's JLF Construction, as well as high-profile supporters like former Supervisor (and current assessor candidate) Johanna Rodoni and property rights advocate Lee Ulansey. (With more than $56,000 raised so far, Sundberg is far and away the fundraising champion of the Fifth District.)
But Sundberg considers himself a moderate and says his support is broad-based, extending leftward as far as Patty Clary, executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics. His support also extends to several tribal communities. He's backed by the Yurok Tribe (he's Yurok himself) as well as the Trinidad, Big Lagoon, Bear River and Blue Lake rancherias (the latter split $10,000 between Sundberg and Cleary). At 22, Sundberg became the youngest person ever elected to the Trinidad Rancheria Tribal Council, and he cites his budget management experience there as preparation for the job of county Supervisor. (He, too, promised to recuse himself if the tribe has something before the Board.) He earned a bachelor's in business from HSU, then went to work at his aunt's insurance agency. He serves on the Mad River Rotary and HSU's business advisory council.
Not surprisingly, given this background, Sundberg says his top priority would be jobs. "I'm worried about the way Humboldt County is going," he says. "I want my daughter to be able to buy a house here and enjoy the quality of life we get to." That future is threatened, he says, because the county doesn't throw out the welcome mat for companies looking to expand or relocate here. And he echoes the other candidates' concerns about our infrastructure, saying reliable roads and broadband are essential for economic growth.
"And smart growth, definitely," Mostranski pipes in, dropping a buzzword from the General Plan Update. While all four candidates say they support "smart growth" (as opposed to...?), Sundberg places more emphasis on individual property rights than infill. "If people want to live in town, that's fine," he says. "But is [the county] ever going to be a place where everybody's gonna get to take public transportation and walk to work? Humboldt County's not set up for that, I don't think. Even if you're in McKinleyville and you work in McKinleyville, you're probably still going to drive your car." Nevertheless, he said, prime agricultural land must be protected.
Through the Trinidad Rancheria, Sundberg has been working on a different broadband project -- a collaboration between several tribes and private interests that would run a fiber optic line from Santa Rosa to Portland. (The proposal, contingent upon stimulus money, is currently under federal review.) Contrary to the other candidates, Sundberg doesn't think McKinleyville necessarily needs an advisory committee, provided it has a Supervisor who's responsive to residents' needs. That's what he's promising, though he admits the budget will make things difficult.
"The next three to five years are going to be hard," he says. "We're going to have to get creative, figure out ways to do more with less."
Throughout the local blogosphere, Jeffrey Lytle is known simply as the "Henchman of Justice." This self-administered moniker serves as both headline and byline to his many online screeds -- libertarian-flavored arguments always signed with his full name and the post-script "McKinleyville -- 5th District." This sign-off could be viewed a number of ways -- as a symbol of community pride and ownership, as a pretension designed to add weight to his arguments, or as a savvy campaigning tactic. Lytle earned 12 percent of the Fifth District vote in the primary election four years ago, and he says he's hopeful but realistic this time around.
"I know I'm a long shot and I'll tell you why," he says, "special interests and money." Both influences have pervaded and perverted our political processes, in Lytle's opinion. Thus far he's neither raised nor spent a dime on his campaign, according to his disclosure forms. He's leaving it up to voters to educate themselves. "Corruption," he says, "that's something you have prevalent in all levels of government -- every jurisdiction."
Born in Trinidad, Lytle grew up in Freshwater and attended Eureka High School. He says he's been fascinated by the machinations of politics since his days in 4-H. Now a home builder with an eye toward environmental ethics, Lytle is a regular attendee at local government meetings, from the McKinleyville Community Services District to the county Planning Commission to the Board of Supervisors, none of which are immune to his criticisms.
"The General Plan Update...I've asserted from day one it's just been a fraud," he says. Yet for all his cynicism surrounding the political system, Lytle maintains faith in individuals. County staff, he believes, just needs an honest, principled figurehead, someone who will lead by example and be, in his words, "a steward of the people."
Beyond purging corruption, Lytle's platform is hazy. He's calling for a more comprehensive database at the county building department, a more transparent tax assessment appeals process and a General Plan Update that defends individual property rights. "And I'd like to see the legalization of marijuana," he says. "When things are done in secret it's a lot worse than when they're done in open." He even admitted to smoking a bit himself now and then to combat back pain (he has his 215 card).
Lytle declined a request for a current photo of himself, explaining, "This election isn't about any individual or group. This is just a test for the voters. They need to do research. They can't just vote for the prettiest person or the ugliest. It comes down to positions and stances."
On Monday, Duffy announced she would be endorsing Sundberg because he has the temperament and listening skills necessary for the job. The previous Wednesday, before she'd settled on an endorsement, she offered a word of warning and a piece of advice for whoever becomes her replacement. The warning: Last year, in order to balance the budget, the county had to pull out all the stops -- loans, transfers, contingency reserves, hiring freezes -- which means this year will be a relative budget reduction, and next year doesn't look any better. "Economic gurus predict that local governments will not pull out of this recession for three to five years," Duffy said. Inevitably, those governments will need to make friends in other departments as well as the private sector.
And her advice? "Each community [in the Fifth District] has its own unique identity and character. Let [those] individual communities set what the priorities and agendas are, and just do your best."