The Election That Wasn’t

Local city council races attract barely enough candidates to fill positions



When it comes to city council elections in Humboldt County this year, well, most don't even qualify as "elections." Local municipalities have a serious candidate drought on their hands: Five of the county's seven incorporated cities won't see any competition on their November ballots: Arcata, Blue Lake, Ferndale, Rio Dell and Trinidad each qualified just enough candidates to fill the seats up for grabs. Eureka and Fortuna, meanwhile, have just three candidates running for two council seats apiece. In all that makes 19 candidates running for 17 city council seats countywide -- the fewest contenders since 1992.

What gives? Are would-be competitors satisfied with the status quo? Have they grown complacent? Cynical? Too busy? Maybe they're waiting to see about this Mayan apocalypse. Whatever the case, the dearth of office-seekers bodes ill for democracy on the North Coast, according to Ryan Emenaker, a political science professor at College of the Redwoods. And he has a couple of big-picture theories about what might be happening.

The first has to do with organization: In California and a number of other states, local offices are nonpartisan, which has its advantages. (Traditional party ideologies aren't always relevant to local issues, for example.) But without the community-building and recruiting efforts that come with the party structure, such states have had a harder time fielding candidates, Emenaker said.

His other theory has to do with what drives us. Social scientists argue that people are motivated by wealth, power and status. "Obviously, in local elections you're not getting much wealth or power, but status has usually been attached," he said. It may be modest, but a certain amount of respect has historically been afforded to elected community leaders. In recent years, however, esteem for politicians has been eroding from the top down. Congress' approval rating is at an all-time low; political scandals and corruption run rampant; "politician" is practically an insult.

"This general feeling toward government, this malaise -- I would have to assume at some point it would trickle down to people's willingness to run [for office]," Emenaker said.

Many authors and academics started worrying about America's declining social capital during the 1990s, pointing to the steady erosion in voter turnout, membership in clubs and leagues, and the number of people willing to run for office. Smaller communities, like those in Humboldt County, have been more resistant -- but not immune.

Another factor is the social makeup of the cities themselves. For example, Trinidad (pop. 367) is largely made up of retirees, some of whom have already served terms on the city council. "The rest of the community is either busy or not interested," said City Clerk Gabriel Adams. In his 10 years as clerk there's been just one city council election -- a real nail-biter in 2004 when Chi-Wei Lin beat Jim Cuthbertson by a mere three votes, 126 to 123. (The other winner, Dean Heyenga, earned 140 votes.)

The lack of competition is far more surprising in Arcata, a city famous for its outspoken progressive idealism. In the college community's last six elections, there were at least two candidates -- sometimes three -- for every open council seat. Not this year, though. Three candidates tried and failed to qualify for inclusion on the ballot; they were unable to gather the required 20 valid signatures from Arcata voters.

Mark Sailors, one of the rejected candidates, turned in 26 signatures 15 minutes before the deadline. Eleven of those signatures were disqualified -- three came from people not registered to vote in Humboldt County; three more weren't registered in Arcata; two were registered at different addresses than the ones they wrote down; and three other signatures looked dramatically different than the ones on file with the county, according to Arcata Deputy City Clerk Bridget Dory.

Sailors initially took to his Facebook page alleging fraud, which he later downgraded to "shenanigans," and in a phone conversation Monday evening he acknowledged that "people in Arcata sometimes have trouble following instructions."

Emenaker, the CR prof, said you have to question the seriousness of any candidate who fails at such a straightforward task. The names of all three incumbents -- Michael Winkler (who's also mayor), Shane Brinton (vice-mayor) and Susan Ornelas -- will still appear on the ballot, along with two hot-button ballot initiatives: Measure H, which declares that corporations are not people, and Measure I, a tax initiative targeting electricity-hogging indoor marijuana growers.

Winkler offered a simple explanation for the lack of serious challengers: "By and large, people are happy with the job we're doing," he said last week.

But former councilman and perennial council candidate Dave Meserve offered an alternate theory: Since the Green Party (his party) lost its council majority in 2006, he said, the city has been taken over by "downtown business interests," and voters aren't satisfied so much as complacent. Asked why he wasn't running this time around, Meserve said he's focusing on Measure I. Plus, he said, "I don't like to lose."

The only contested city council races this year will be in Eureka and Fortuna. In Eureka's Second Ward, incumbent Linda Atkins will face a challenge from Joe Bonino, a little-known Humboldt State University payroll technician who will try to make the conservative grip on Eureka absolute.

In Fortuna, where candidates are elected citywide instead of by wards, incumbent Douglas Strehl is expected to retain his council position while two new candidates vie for the seat being vacated by Kenneth Zanzi. In a phone interview last week, Zanzi said the economy could be a factor in the public's reticence to run for office. "People are concerned about their jobs and livelihoods, and stepping into an elected position is going to take time from their daily lives," he said. A lot of time.

Along with city council duties, Zanzi said he's expected to serve on outside committees, such as the California League of Cities Legislative Committee, the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission and more. "When you start adding up all those other assignments, plus commitments to the city, it's a pretty demanding job" -- more than 40 hours' worth per week, he said, with compensation of just $300 per month.

"You have to have something in your gut that wants you to run for office," Zanzi explained. He was passionate about updating the city's general plan, and now that that's been accomplished he's decided not to seek a second term. He's ready to spend more time on his own interests, including a new Arcata business park that he and his wife are building.

The two Fortuna residents hoping to replace Zanzi are Tami Gillam-Trent, a third-generation Fortunan who, at 51, owns Tangles hair salon and has served 10 years on the city's planning commission , and Josh Brown, a 34-year-old father of three and assistant manager at Les Schwab Tire Center. Brown moved to Fortuna from Eugene, Ore., seven years ago and would like to see more retail opportunities in town, especially a Wal-Mart. Gillam-Trent wants Fortuna to keep growing slowly so it doesn't lose its "small-town atmosphere."

Modest ambitions, perhaps, but they're enough to keep democracy alive.

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