Stillman Out, Strehl In on NCRA Board After Bizarre Meeting of Mayors


In a meeting filled with passionate arguments, surprise twists and dark insinuations, Arcata City Councilmember Alex Stillman had her appointment to the board of directors for the North Coast Railroad Authority rescinded this afternoon by the same body that appointed her in May. And after some confusion, a vote, more confusion and two re-votes, she was replaced on that agency's board by Fortuna Mayor Doug Strehl.

On its face this would seem to be a "win" -- albeit a messy one -- for die-hard rail boosters, who viewed Stillman's support of environmental causes and rails with trails as a deviation from scripture. Her May appointment to the NCRA board had been called into question by Eureka attorney Bill Bertain, who argued that a procedural technicality had rendered the move invalid. The setting for Tuesday's political showdown was a meeting of the Mayor's City Selection Committee, which comprises the mayors of the county's seven incorporated cities. But, in one of the day's many twists, Eureka City Councilmember Mike Newman was sitting in for Mayor Frank Jager.

That's significant because Jager voted with the 4-2 majority back in May to appoint Stillman, while rumor had it that Newman would switch Eureka's allegiance and vote for Strehl. And if that happened, it would place Ferndale Mayor Stuart Titus, who missed the May meeting, in the role of tie-breaker.

The early stages of the meeting were occupied with more-or-less friendly debate about whether the matter even warranted reconsideration. Was the procedural snafu that Bertain alleged legitimate? Dave Tranberg, legal counsel for the Humboldt County Association of Governments, said that Stillman's appointment was probably valid, but it couldn't hurt to go back and re-do the vote, just so any aggrieved parties (such as Bertain) had no legal ground to stand on.

And so, after some debate, Stillman's appointment was rescinded, despite "no" votes from Arcata Mayor Shane Brinton, Blue Lake Mayor Sherman Schapiro and Trinidad Mayor Julie Fulkerson. The stage was set for the anticipated 3-3 tie and the Titus tie breaker.

But Titus had a surprise planned: After some diplomatic throat-clearing, he nominated himself for the vacant position, arguing that he'd been doing a lot of research on NCRA issues recently and could be considered a middle-ground compromise candidate.

Fulkerson, with (perhaps mock) delight, turned to Newman and said, "C'mon, jump in!" as if encouraging him to join the growing list of candidates. She smiled. "This is a great twist."

With three candidates now on the floor, the public weighed in -- mostly government meeting regulars voicing support for either Stillman ("strong leader," "open minded," "trails") or Strehl ("jobs," "rail first," "jobs").

More than an hour into the meeting, the mayors themselves argued their positions, with none arguing more forcefully than Fulkerson. She expressed appreciation for Stillman's political achievements over the years and suggested that her appointment was being jeopardized by back-room politics.

"We have a viable, strong candidate on the board who’s already attended two meetings," Fulkerson said. "And what the heck does it look like that we’re having this hour-long discussion and changing our minds? For what reason? Something I was not privy to. Something that went on behind closed doors."

After singing Stillman's praises a bit more, Fulkerson elaborated on the political mystery. "I don’t know what happened in Eureka. Frank [Jager] was here last time. He saw that this was an opportunity to build bridges, to do something inside the county and outside that would make a difference. And something happened. And I don’t think it’s going to be discussed. But I find it offensive. ...

"I just think we need to stick with our decision," she continued, "and hopefully move this forward without too many people hearing about it, because it’s embarrassing, frankly."

Finally, it came time to vote. Fulkerson, Brinton and Schapiro voted for Stillman. Newman, Rio Dell Mayor Jack Thompson and Strehl himself voted for Strehl. And Titus voted for Titus. 3-3-1.

Confusion ensued. What was the procedure in case of a tie? A majority of the board was needed to make an appointment, it was agreed. And if the committee failed to do so at this meeting, it would probably lose its chance: Appointing rights would fall to Mendocino.

Schapiro asked Titus if he'd withdraw his candidacy; Titus refused.

Fulkerson called on Newman to "honor the spirit" of Jager and switch his vote to Stillman; Newman refused.

The committee voted again -- with the same result: 3-3-1.

Finally, Tranberg, the committee's legal counsel, found a section in the bylaws to move things along. Elections with multiple candidates are to proceed through a process of elimination, meaning the candidate with the fewest votes (Titus, in this case), gets eliminated.

The committee voted again. And this time Titus, no longer allowed to vote for himself, cast his vote for Strehl. Meeting adjourned.

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