District Soup

Racing for the top county seat in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd districts




County Supervisor Jimmy Smith held up a legal pad he uses to remember which phone calls he made on which day. "Today we've got ..." Smith paused and flipped the pad back around to read it. "Department of Conservation ... someone worried about illegal parking on their street ... a St. Joseph Hospital official ... a guy who wants to repair drainage near his house ...  Occupiers ... people concerned with Occupiers ... someone who lives next to a commercial building with bright lights ... ." He nodded, so on, and pointed to a 15-inch row of manila folders on the corner of his desk. "Over here are the hot files, the things I'm working on," he said.

As the 1st District supervisor, Smith is one of the most powerful people in Humboldt County. He and the four other elected representatives from the county's five districts are the top bosses of county government. The board of Supervisors writes county laws dictating, for example, how many chickens can be kept per acre and how tall fences can be. It appoints county officials and sets policies for county departments, like Health and Human Services, Community Development and the Sheriff's Office.

On one recent day the board voted on whether to approve repairs to a rural county road, whether to proclaim May "Bike Month in Humboldt," and whether to present a certificate of achievement to a recently crowned Eagle Scout, plus a dozen or so other matters, both weighty and mundane. The Board also sets employees' salaries and writes the county's annual budget. Above all, Smith and his peers represent their respective constituents. If someone in their district has a problem, they try to solve it.

Most new supervisors have some experience in government, either on city councils or boards, but the learning curve is still steep. "It's amazing the amount of subjects you have to be knowledgeable about," Smith said. It's a full-time job, and they're paid for their efforts -- roughly $80,000 plus benefits ("Super Pay," May 3).

Smith said that, in his experience, people are attracted to the position out of a genuine desire to serve their community and make things better. "Most people say, ‘How can we make transportation better? How can we do better with roads? How can we do better with sustainable development?' They want to come in and learn as much as they can."

This year, seven candidates are vying for three seats up for grabs in the June 5 election: Jimmy Smith is stepping down, leaving a three-way race in the 1st District between retired English teacher Annette de Modena, retired HSU educator and former Wiyot Tribal Chairwoman Cheryl Seidner, and compost-businessman and youth sports organizer Rex Bohn. Estelle Fennell, a longtime journalist and former executive director of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights, is challenging incumbent apple baron Clif Clendenen in the 2nd District; and in the 3rd, small business developer Karen Brooks is attempting to topple incumbent Mark Lovelace.

Supervisor races tend to focus on what candidates think about land use. Authority over zoning is one of the key powers given to county governments, and since county supervisor is technically a nonpartisan position, it's more informative to classify candidates within the spectrum of property rights -- pro-development versus pro-conservation, rather than liberal versus conservative.

The pro-development camp wants a hands-off approach to government. People should be able to do what they want with their land, they say. It's a matter of freedom. Conversely, the pro-conservation camp believes that unrestricted growth is a sure way to turn Humboldt into Santa "sprawl" Rosa. They think that development should happen where there is already infrastructure to support it.

In areas like Ferndale, many who normally vote Republican want to protect their town's quaint charm by limiting willy-nilly development. Meanwhile, many Democrat- or Green-voting backwoodsers in Southern Humboldt don't want the county telling them what they can or can't do on their property.  It's a label-crushing situation.

"Those lines get blurred," said Ryan Emenaker, a political science professor at the College of the Redwoods. In the 1920s, he explained, California voters tried to weaken the overbearing political parties. One way they did that, he said, is by making many local positions nonpartisan. Voters won't see (D) or (R) on the supervisor section of the ballot.

Still, the race isn't exactly nonpartisan, Emenaker said. Party central committees generally endorse one candidate or another. At the same time, supervisors aren't beholden to the national parties in the same way as partisan politicians, because they face different issues.

Back in 2008, during the last election cycle for the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Districts, the Journal predicted that the new board would be the one to finish the General Plan update. The plan is essentially the county blueprint. Its zoning guidelines dictate the rules for development and resource management within the county, among other things. It was last updated in 1984.

The process has taken more than a decade, though the update is now in its final stages and is scheduled to go before the supervisors in June. Smith said, however, that there's no guarantee that the updated plan will be finalized by the time the new board is seated in January. A number of things could delay it -- disagreements might lead to lawsuits, or there could be political foot-dragging to delay the vote for a different board.

1st District

Rex Bohn  is a difficult man to talk to. It's not because he's reserved or hard to read; in fact he's warm and hovers on the edge of a belly laugh. The problem is that people are always coming up to him. During a 45-minute interview, Bohn cheerfully greeted no fewer than six fellow coffee-shop patrons and waved out the window at a dozen or more passing trucks. "Oh that's" so-and-so, he would say, grinning. "So anyway ... ."

Though he's registered Independent (a recent Republican convert), Bohn is widely viewed as a friend to big business, and he recently got enthusiastic cheers at the Republican of the Year dinner in Eureka. He protested that label, however. "I think it's easy to brand someone as big development, as this and as that, but I think you better know the person and know what they're gonna bring to the table," he said.

Bohn's views on land use largely echo those of the property rights and pro-development proponents -- he believes people should be able to build as they see fit on their land, with some safety, environmental and building stipulations. At the same time, he said, as an avid outdoorsman he doesn't want development at the detriment of the environment. The key is balance, he said. "There are so many people worried that there will be no restrictions, and there are so many people worried that their rights will be taken away," he said. "We're gonna have to find a happy medium."

Like many of the supervisorial candidates, Bohn said that he'll bring more jobs to the county. This is a somewhat dubious claim for any candidate to make since supervisors can only create county government jobs. But Bohn said there's plenty that supervisors can do to make the county attractive to outside businesses -- by improving roads and docks, by streamlining permitting processes, and by active promotion. "We gotta let people know that we're open for business," he said.

Bohn sees running for supervisor as the natural next step in a life of service. "My father always said, ‘If you want a great community, get involved,'" he said. A county resident for most of his life, Bohn has volunteered for years in youth sports programs and the local Special Olympics, and is a frequent auctioneer at charity auctions.

He's the only 1st District candidate still in the workforce -- as a raw material scout for local soil company FoxFarm. Bohn works full-time, campaigning when he can. Previously he worked for the now-defunct Evergreen Pulp Mill on the Samoa peninsula, and before that for Renner Petroleum. He said that his years of interacting with the local government as a businessman have given him a thorough understanding of county mechanics.

If he does need help, Bohn has plenty of well-positioned friends to give him a hand. He's racked up a lengthy list of endorsers, including dozens of past and present county politicians and business leaders, not to mention hundreds of private citizens.

His baseballesque campaign signs blanket Eureka, and his coffers overflow with more than $140,000 in donations. (All campaign figures are through late March.) A large number of his major donors are involved in industry and development, such as Hilfiker Pipe Co., C & K Johnson Industries, Barnum Timber, L & H Lumber Co., and George Schmidbauer of Schmidbauer Lumber. Many of his biggest donors have also made considerable donations to the campaigns of Estelle Fennell and Karen Brooks in the 2nd and 3rd Districts respectively, both of whom are vocal property rights advocates and pro-development.

Bohn said it's not the dollar amounts but the number of people donating that's important. "I've had 850 people donate to my campaign," he said. "I believe almost all of them are local. There's probably been close to 500 [donations] under $100." A lady came up to him the other day at Murphy's Market, he said. She was on limited income, but she wanted to be part of the campaign, so she gave him a dollar. "That dollar probably means more to me than any other donation."

Cheryl Seidner never planned on running for supervisor, but Patty Berg persuaded her. Berg, a Democrat and former state Assembly member, said that she didn't want to have to choose between Bohn and de Modena. She didn't feel like running herself. Instead, she thought of Seidner.

Seidner is a registered Democrat, and she announced her candidacy at the local Democratic Headquarters (because it was raining at the Sequoia Park Zoo, she said). As with Berg, many Seidner supporters view her as a welcome alternative to what they see as two pro-development Republican types. Berg said that she asked Seidner to run not only because of her politics but also for her personality. "Cheryl puts people first," Berg said. "When she thinks that things aren't right, she'll stand up and say so."

Seidner is the most politically experienced of the 1st District candidates. She spent 12 years as the tribal chair of the Wiyot tribe. The experience helped her develop her management style, which she said is based on talking with experts, listening to opponents, and delegating tasks to the most capable hands. One of Seidner's most notable accomplishments during her time as chair was negotiating the 2004 return of 40 acres of Indian Island to the Wiyot tribe, to whom the island is sacred.

Seidner, seated behind a table at the Ramone's in Old Town Eureka, smiled constantly and sprinkled her speech with metaphors. Community, she explained, is like weaving a basket. "You take strong hazel sticks to make the frame. That's the people of the community," she said, while weaving an air-basket to demonstrate. "Then you take willow roots and weave it so tight it holds water. Then on the outside you create a beautiful design. That's the people together."

She grew up fishing on the local rivers, and she said that one of her biggest priorities is having healthy waterways. The county's rivers and Humboldt Bay are also a source of employment, she said, for managers, fishers and oyster farmers. She said that regulation isn't always a bad thing -- it's one of the big reasons why Humboldt Bay is as clean and healthy as it is. She doesn't, however, describe herself as an environmentalist, and she says her views on land use are moderate. She supports people's right to build on their property, provided environmental and safety requirements are met, and the same goes for new development. "I want to protect our environment," Seidner said, "But I also want to protect our people and I want to see them be prosperous."

Seidner's late entry drastically changed the dynamic of the 1st District race. Her candidacy complicated what many considered a clear path to victory for Bohn, and made a runoff election much more likely. This late entry could also be her biggest hurdle, since it means less time for fundraising and face-to-face contact with would-be constituents. She's running what she called a "shoestring campaign," but she's optimistic. She said that after Berg asked her to run she took a week to think about it. "I asked the Creator, ‘Are there any obstacles in my way?'" she said, gazing out the window, suddenly serious. "And there do not appear to be any."


Third up is Annette de Modena. The former English teacher schooled local kids on their nouns and verbs for almost 25 years before retiring in 2010. "Service has always been key to my life's work," de Modena said, seated in her campaign headquarters on H and Henderson in Eureka. She's energetic and smells of flowery perfume. It is easy to picture her in front of a classroom.

De Modena is a registered Republican who describes herself as a moderate, but her politics aren't what's important in the race, she said, sounding frustrated -- instead people should remember her long experience as a teacher and involved citizen, and her unflagging work ethic.

De Modena has spent the last couple years preparing for the role, she said, by attending Board of Supervisors meetings and by making fact-finding expeditions around the district, like a recent trip to Petrolia to chat with ranchers concerned about a proposed wind farm. Perhaps most valuable of all, she said, is her work with Prosperity! 2012, the county's official economic development strategy. She serves on a harbor revitalization committee, a vocational training committee and is helping with a railroad feasibility study.

She favors a live-and-let-live approach to land use, and she doesn't want to see any more rules and regulations on the General Plan update. So-called "smart-growth," she said, equates to sequestering people in cities while halting development in rural areas. She thinks harsh zoning laws lower property values and, in turn, property taxes. Instead, she said, the county should support growth in its rural areas, albeit with some careful planning. "I'm a growth person," de Modena said, "But I'm for planned growth that considers community, considers ecology, making sure it fits."

De Modena faces long odds. With Smith retiring there are three candidates in the 1st District race, and in order to win outright in the primary one candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote, making a November run-off likely. She is deeply in debt, having loaned herself more than $22,000 and raised less than $4,000.

De Modena isn't ready to concede. "I'm an underdog in name only, in terms of finances that I do not have," she said. "But when it comes to spirit, when it comes to focus, when it comes to vision [and] voice, I am not an underdog."


2nd District

The 2nd District is the toughest to categorize with simple political labels, and it is here that the General Plan update is most contentious. The race is a rematch. Clif Clendenen and Estelle Fennell last met at the ballot box in 2008, when they ran against a write-in campaign from Johanna Rodoni, who'd been appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to finish the term of her late husband, Roger Rodoni, who died in a traffic accident in April 2008. Clendenen is now the incumbent, Fennell the challenger.

In 2008 Clendenen was generally viewed as the conservative candidate, and Fennell was generally seen as more liberal. The last four years have altered those impressions. Clendenen often votes on the pro-conservation side of things, while Fennell left her gig as KMUD news director to become executive director of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights (HumCPR), a corporation dedicated to protecting rural property rights.

In southern Humboldt, the line between liberal and libertarian is hard to discern, and the same holds true between conservative and conservationist.

Fennell is at her downtown Fortuna headquarters, sitting on an old couch and explaining in her light Irish accent why the 2nd needs new leadership. Southern Humboldt, she says, has long had the Horton Hears a Who problem -- nobody in the population-heavy north listens to the SoHummers. The 2nd District supervisor's job is to make sure the district gets its slice, and she says Clendenen hasn't been making that happen.

For example, she said, Clendenen recently voted in favor of a $16 million Caltrans project on the safety corridor between Eureka and Arcata, a move that she said will tie up funding that could have improved the ratty roads in the 2nd District. "The vast majority [of his constituents] disagreed with that vote," she said. "Lots of roads in the 2nd need improvement."

Fennell spent nearly three years as the executive director of HumCPR. She opposes enacting heavy restrictions on what people can do with their land, and she's skeptical of the General Plan update. Whole sections of the plan are unfinished and unusable, she said. "I know from just looking at the process that it's not gonna be over even after they sign off on it," she said. The worst part, she said, is that county residents haven't been given the right kinds of opportunities to chime in on the update. The board's efforts to be inclusive were largely superficial and inconvenient for rural residents, she said.

She said her time as a reporter and her stint at HumCPR uniquely prepared her for the technical aspects of being district supervisor. Indeed, she spoke quickly and easily about the General Plan's minute details and the history of the plan update.

It's complicated business, particularly in rural areas. Martha Spencer, a supervising county planner, said that tax collectors, the county and the federal government all divide the land differently. For example, a landowner might get two different tax forms and think she has two separate parcels when in reality her land simply falls into two different school districts. Adding to the mess are the old patent parcels that the federal government gave out back in the 1800s. Over the years, people bought and sold many of those large parcels, merging or dividing them. Record-keeping was often sloppy. Now, when people try to sell or buy property, they frequently have to deal with maps and laws that are 50, 75, 100 years old.

Instead of making things easier and giving people the benefit of the doubt, Fennell said that the General Plan update as proposed will make things harder for already-struggling landowners.

Fennell said that if voters aren't won over by her politics alone, they ought to pay attention to her style. She's forceful, she said, implying that Clendenen is a pushover. "We need strong and effective leadership. Part of that is personality -- someone who is willing to take a stand."

Clendenen, however, looks back on his term as four years well spent. When we talked to him he'd spent the day battling to keep Grizzly Creek State Park open. It has been slated for closure, but Clendenen is negotiating for the county to take responsibility for the park while the state gets its finances in order.

The park is in the 2nd District, but Clendenen said a lot of the work he does is for the benefit of the whole county. Supervisors take the lead on problems specific to their own districts, he said. "We're also at the same time working with the whole board for the greater good of the county." The Arcata-Eureka safety corridor vote was an example of that, he said.

Head of a Fortuna family of apple growers, Clendenen is soft-spoken and has a farmerish, aww-shucksy vibe, but he sounded offended when asked about the corridor vote, saying it's "just completely wrong" to say it wasn't in the interest of his constituents. Because of how the funding from the state works, he explained, in order to get money for other road-improvement projects in the county the board had to let Caltrans have a project of its choosing. Besides, most people in the county travel on the safety corridor at least a couple times a year, he said. "It's not a bad county project."

Clendenen is on the pro-conservation side of things, though he said he favors a tempered approach that doesn't preclude rural development altogether.

"In addition to supporting development where it's appropriate, I'm absolutely going to keep an eye on our environmental component," he said. "There needs to be a balance." Over the last 30 or 40 years, he said, a lot of ranch parcels have been divided. The subdivisions created a vibrant rural community but also put strain on water sources by concentrating housing. "You need water for your parcel, the people downstream need water, and meanwhile we've got a wonderful nascent recovering salmon run," Clendenen said. Again, a balancing act.

The General Plan update will address water scarcity issues in the area and address zoning issues in a way that benefits the most people, Clendenen said. He's upset that Fennell and others are calling the update unworkable so late in the process. "We have folks that want to cry out for better public process at the end of the General Plan update, when they've had years to contribute," he said. "I think that's just flat-out wrong. There have been hundreds of meetings."

The fundraising race in the 2nd District so far is more evenly matched than in the 1st. Clendenen has raised more than $51,000 in contributions while Fennell has raised nearly $60,000.

3rd District

The 3rd District race is the most clear-cut. Incumbent Mark Lovelace favors concentrating growth around cities and areas with existing infrastructure while challenger Karen Brooks is all about property rights. The district includes Humboldt State University and generally leans liberal.

Some characterize Brooks as a psychedelic Republican. She used to be the spokesperson for the local Tea Party, and when we spoke with her she was wearing a purple and green pin with white cartoon flowers that read, "Pick Karen Brooks Supervisor." But Brooks said she's neither Republican (though she used to be) nor psychedelic.

Speaking with the Journal at a Bayside coffee spot, Brooks couldn't have been further from the stereotypical, tricorn-hatted Tea Partier. Articulate and polite, she laughed off the label. "I really carry a little bit of all parties," she said. "I want to represent every voice, all people."

A self-employed small-business adviser, Brooks helps companies expand and trains new managers. Locally, she said, the biggest threat facing small businesses isn't from competition but from overbearing government. "Owning a business is really a wonderful experience. It's a dream of most people." But, she added, it's hard for people to navigate government permitting and legal requirements. That's where the supervisors could do more, she said. "There needs to be more of an ombudsman philosophy."

She calls herself a defender of personal property rights. If someone wants to build a mother-in-law unit on his property, he should be allowed to, but large open spaces should be used to grow food, Brooks said. She wants to incentivize farming so that agricultural lands aren't converted to residential as aging farmers retire without replacements.

It's true, she admitted, that some people do want to develop on open spaces, and stopping them wouldn't exactly support their personal property rights.

People who worry that rampant development will turn Humboldt into Santa Rosa aren't being realistic, she said, since nobody in the county, pro-development or not, wants that to happen. On the other hand, she said, people like Lovelace want to see district residents living in dense, noisy, self-contained mini-cities, with no room to spread out.

Brooks said she has the personality for the job -- something her opponent lacks. "I was really open to Mark," Brooks said. "He seemed open, affable, ‘Let's work together,' but he's not." Instead, she said, Lovelace turned out to be "an agent, a tool of the state and federal government." For example, she said that when PG&E installed Smart Meters he didn't do anything about it, even though people in the district didn't want them. That's the kind of stand she's willing to take. "I am an agent for the people and the communities they live in."

Hours later, Mark Lovelace arrived at the same coffee shop, looking harried. He'd spent all day in talks with various county agencies over the American Airlines deal, which he had taken the lead on. The deal has since fallen through, though Lovelace said that options for future service remain open.

A manufacturing consultant in his private life, Lovelace first became interested in county zoning issues 10 years ago when the Sierra Pacific Industries wanted to log the forest behind Sunny Brae. It was zoned for timber production, but the people in adjacent neighborhoods didn't want the associated noise, traffic and erosion. Lovelace helped organize a community effort to push Sierra Pacific for concessions, like limiting hours of operation and using smaller trucks to haul logs through residential areas. Instead, the company offered to sell the land to the City of Arcata, and the Arcata Ridge Trail was born.

The real problem, Lovelace realized, was one of zoning. "We built ourselves into that conflict," he said. The houses were too close to the logging company's land. "With encroachment of development in and around our timberland, the ability to manage those lands effectively becomes more difficult."

He got involved in the General Plan update in the hopes that he could help prevent similar conflicts. Running for supervisor in 2008 seemed like the natural next step. "I tried to not just make noise about the problem but be part of the solution," Lovelace said.

He doesn't like to use words like "smart-growth" or "in-fill" to describe centering development around existing urban centers. "What we're talking about is not something new but something very old," he said -- modern words describing the traditional downtown. And he refuted Brooks' claims about packing people into cities. "It's a ridiculous fear tactic, the idea that anyone is going to be forced to live a lifestyle not of their choosing," Lovelace said.

Like Clendenen, Lovelace is upset by resistance to moving forward on the General Plan update. "There are few issues that are a better bellwether of our differences in values and ideologies than land use," Lovelace said. Accordingly, not everyone is going to agree. He called the 11-year process, "incredibly inclusive" and said that the board has heard from more than 1,000 people during hundreds of meetings.

Professor Emenaker said that as the challenger, Brooks probably faces an uphill battle. "If you look at registration numbers it's overwhelmingly a Democratic district," he said. Additionally, Lovelace has name recognition. Still, that doesn't mean the race is over. "She's raised a lot of money, which shows she has a lot of support behind her," he said. "If she's spending that money well you could see a fairly serious effect."

Lovelace has raised just less than $11,000. Brooks has raised almost $40,000. Her list of major donors includes many of the same names as the Bohn and Fennell lists, including C & K Industries, Barnum Timber Co., Hilfiker Pipe Co., Rob McBeth of O&M Industries, Lee Ulansey and George Schmidbauer.

The truth, said Supervisor Smith, is that once the board is seated, politics don't come into it very often, because nothing gets done without collaboration. "All the board members are smart and work hard," he said, leaning back in his chair. "You don't do anything by yourself."

Just then, 4th District supervisor Virginia Bass poked her head in, phone at her ear, and said to Smith, "I need you!" before disappearing back down the hall. Smith raised his eyebrows and smiled, like, You see?

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