What's the first thing you think of when you think of Humboldt County's First Supervisorial District, that one-fifth of the county's population that fisherman Jimmy Smith has represented since 2000? Even if you're someone who pays attention, it's likely as not that you first think of cattle, creameries, quaint Victorian villages. And so it looks on the map. The district takes in a wide swath of the county's southwestern edge, from the Lost Coast up through Petrolia, Ferndale and Loleta.
But we'll let you in on a secret. When you get right down to it, that isn't the First District at all. If you're counting registered voters rather than raw acreage, that vast pastoral landscape is only about 20 percent of the First District. The real weight is concentrated in the tip of the district's head. That other 80 percent is concentrated in Eureka and its outskirts — Henderson Center, Cutten, Humboldt Hill, King Salmon/Fields Landing. When you get right down to it, the First District is by far the most suburban in the county. Suburbs generally being in short supply up here.
Why does this matter? Just that there's a pretty decent chance that this time around these suburban voters will decide the direction of the county over the next 20 years or so. The next Board of Supervisors will be the one to ratify the long awaited update to the county's general plan, and as you'll surmise in the item below there's no shortage of big money hoping that it can reverse the current board's preference for restrictive, low-impact "smart growth." In that sense, the sleepy, little-noticed First District is probably the season's key political contest. Not just because a good chunk of the county's future growth is currently set to occur in the Eureka outskirts, but because the smart money has to know that the First District is the only place it has a decent shot of picking up a vote. Reason one: No one's paying much attention. Reason two: It's the most conservative district in the county, constantly flirting with an actual Republican plurality, and the man in the seat now is a Democrat — not an Arcata-style lefty firebrand, but a Democrat nevertheless.
Smith's challenger is Ferndale dairyman John Vevoda, and the most concise way to draw the difference between the two men is tempermentally. By nature, Smith is patient, low-key and conciliatory. He's principally interested in the wonkish, public works aspects of governmental service: what water goes where, which way the pipes run, how to prepare for a tsunami, how to best operate the infrastructure and bureaucracies the county is charged with operating. Vevoda, who we spoke to Monday, has more revolutionary ideas. He thinks things have gone badly wrong with local government, and that the economy has suffered as a result. The county, he says, needs to build.
"We have to start turning some dirt," he said from his dairy. "I'm not talking about bringing in some factory or something. But when we have the permitting process here in Humboldt County, it seems to be cumbersome no matter what you want to do." He said that port development and the resuscitation of the county's 10-years-dormant railroad are critical to the county's economic future.
Like many people who do business with the county's regulatory land-use apparatuses — the planning and building departments — he is frustrated by the seemingly endless amount of red tape that must be conquered before a project can go ahead. (This sentiment is far from unique to developers, or conservatives, but they naturally feel it the most.) He seems to promise direct action on that front. said that he hoped to provide the leadership to "get the county up and moving."
Smith, too, has recognized that something is broken in the way planning and building operates, but his approach to addressing the problem is far more subtle, and is not likely to involve firing everyone in the building (as Eureka kazillionaire Rob Arkleyonce famously promised to accomplish). He recently sponsored the development of a letter to be given to project applicants at the start of their work with the department; it promises that staff will provide "hard work" and "professional service" to see the project through, and that they will serve as guides through the morass of state, federal and local regulations that govern development.
How does it play for Smith? "He's a really nice guy, and nobody will argue that," says developer and Vevoda supporter Alan Bongio, who sits on the board of Cutten's Humboldt Community Services District. "Everybody likes Jimmy. But he needs to get the job done."
But what's the job to be done? Like just about everyone we contacted last week, Smith and Vevoda included, one of Bongio's principal concerns was about traffic problems in Cutten, a heavily populated area served by just a couple of small roads. And there's currently a very large development proposed for the Cutten area — the so-called Forster-Gill project — that is slated to include space for thousands of new residents and a large amount of retail space. Smith has been critical of the project as being likely too burdensome on the existing infrastructure. Vevoda, too, mentioned concerns. But if we're to have a laissez-faire approach to new development, how would such problems be addressed?
These are the kinds of questions that engage Smith, and he must hope that his willingness to get dirty with the particulars of policy will trump the more visceral appeal that Vevoda is ready to run on. That and the fact that through his time in office, he's come to know so many folks on the ground. "I believe you have to follow through," Smith said last week."Sometimes it's hard. But if you grind and maintain for the long term — whether it's a new boat group for one group, or a new wastewater plant for another — if you are determined, and you go out and generate the partnership and instill trust, in the end you're going to have a project you're proud of."
Well, it's that timeagain — time, that is, for sleazy telephone polls!
Humboldt County residents have long been used to the fact that every election season brings with it the jingle-jangle of the telephone, the happy sign that the mysterious out-of-town polling company wishes to read you questions about local political affairs. These polls, weighted toward specific political races though not exclusively about them, will never, ever appear on any candidate's financial disclosure statements — neither as direct expenditures nor as non-monetary donations. We're talking way off-book, black ops stuff here.
Sometimes the candidates' campaigns know what's going on and partake in the bounty, as Fourth District aspirant Nancy Flemming's did in 2006 (see "Town Dandy," Dec. 7, 2006). Other times they may have no clue. In any case, last weekend it was Arcata's turn.
Multiple people called the Journal with the same story — a long, all-encompassing poll touching on issues ranging from the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy to the proposed Home Depot-anchored Marina Center development in Eureka. (Somehow, these polls always get back to the Marina Center. Make of that what you will.) But the special focus and raison d'etre of this round of polling was, naturally, the current political race for the Third District Supervisorial seat between activist Mark Lovelace, financial planner Bryan Plumley and Arcata City Councilmember Paul Pitino.
The questions were slanted, of course. Would you be more or less likely to vote for Mark Lovelace if you knew he was an anti-growth far left environmental activist for pay? But it's curious how they were slanted this time. Not toward Plumley, the more conventionally business-friendly of the three, but toward Pitino. According to one pollee, one such question was "Do you agree that Paul Pitino walks the walk?"
Well, well, well. If you happened to think that the poll was part of the Pitino campaign, please banish the thought from your head. The man raises no money and spends no money, and it's not his style besides. No, what we've got here is someone getting clever. The idea appears to be to swiftboat Lovelace, the frontrunner, while making it look like it's Pitino doing the swiftboating! People are getting much more sophisticated about these things.
In any case, Plumley said Monday that he didn't know who was paying for the polls, and didn't know anything else about them either, except for the fact that his wife was polled. He promised that if someone does let slip with inside info he'd give us a ring.