Arcata is known as a progressive city. In fact, it's notoriously progressive. The City Council reflects that, and so does the array of six candidates running for three seats in the coming election -- every one of them is left-of-center in varying degrees.
Some are familiar faces, some not so much so. There's a landlord and a homeless person (who prefers the term "houseless"), a couple of 20-somethings, and more than enough idealism to go around.
A typical question for those running for office is: Why do you want the job? The typically idealistic answer invariably includes the word "service" and some homily about giving back to the community. When you consider the financial crisis facing almost every governmental body today, you might rephrase that question and ask, why in the hell would anyone in their right mind want an elected office that only pays a stipend?
Talk to anyone who's on the council or someone from city staff and you'll hear the same thing. Since Sacramento started hogging the lion's share of tax dollars, Arcata has been forced to cut budgets to the bone, and the residents are seeing the results. Around $14 million in deferred maintenance on city streets and sidewalks has left the town with roads littered with potholes. (Although we do have some lovely roundabouts.) There's a similar backlog of maintenance on the water and sewer systems.
Then there's the Arcata Police Department, down nine officers due to retirements, injuries and transfers to better paying jobs elsewhere. It's been some time since we've had a park ranger -- as a result, Redwood Park has basically been ceded to the transient population.
The magic bullet for Arcata's budget crisis is on the ballot Nov. 4. Proponents, including almost every council candidate, fully support Measure G, Arcata's 3/4 percent sales tax increase. Ballot language suggests that the money will go to fill those potholes, and hire new police officers, but it will be up to the new council to set priorities, should it pass. (There's no organized opposition.) If it doesn't -- well, no one wants to even think about what will happen.
So who wants the job? Although this is a nonpartisan race, it's worth noting that among them are a couple of Democrats, a Green Party member and, surprise, a Republican -- although you'd probably be hard-pressed to say who comes from which party.
We'll start with 58-year-old Michael Machi, the lone incumbent. (Harmony Groves and Paul Pitino both decided against seeking re-election.) Machi, a two-term councilman, is running for his third -- and he says "final" -- term. Prior to his election in 2000, he was a council gadfly focused on issues with the recycling center and "personal agendas on the council." Now he's positioned as the voice of experience, stability and continuity. Known as someone who does his homework, he describes himself as "a good listener."
At 21, Shane Brinton is the youngest in the bunch, but that's not to say he lacks experience. At 18, he ran for and won a seat on the Northern Humboldt Union High School District school board, and he seems a natural politician. His mother, Susan, started taking him to local political meetings as soon as he could walk; when he was 14, he helped her with her unsuccessful bid for City Council. In high school he decided he was a Marxist and joined the Young Communist League; he's since matured into a lefty Democrat focused on social issues: affordable housing, living wage jobs and so on.
Michael Winkler, 59, is the oldest candidate. He's a green-living engineer employed by Schatz Energy Research Center and currently serves as an Arcata Planning Commissioner. He has run unsuccessfully for City Council twice, and is hoping the third time's a charm. If not, he figures "the people will have spoken" and he will not run again. He's knocked on almost every door in Arcata and plans on hitting the rest of town before Election Day. Cracking down on grow houses and renewable energy are his key issues.
Susan Ornelas, 53, is another familiar face. She's been around town for a couple of decades or more, mostly working on local agricultural production and land use issues. She founded the Arcata Educational Farm and currently serves as executive director of Jacoby Creek Land Trust. She's chosen "restore respect" as her signature issue, although what role the City Council plays in that seems unclear.
With five years living in Arcata, Jason Grow, 28, is a relative newcomer. A transplant from the Midwest, he's an HSU economics student who works part-time at Muddy's Hot Cup. Saying he has his "finger on the pulse" of the town, he's honed in on sustainable energy and a living wage as platform planks. He makes up for what he lacks in experience with a head full of ideas.
Bicycle messenger Geronimo Garcia, 44, describes himself as the "houseless" or "outdoors more" candidate and says his constituents are "the houseless people." He figures he'll also draw support from the student population. However, as he explained, reaching student voters is not exactly easy for him. A restraining court order barring him from Humboldt State University property was issued in connection with his on-campus campaign kick-off, which ended with him handcuffed and placed in a police car where he kicked out two windows, an act he describes as "shattering the glass ceiling." He says he does not regret his actions. "People need to make bold gestures to save the planet."
Garcia is also courting bicycling enthusiasts (he advocates peddle-power for just about everything), but he has a lot of competition on that front. Winkler brags that he's done all his canvassing on his bike and he has a seat on the board of Green Wheels, the campus bicycle advocacy group, so naturally he has their endorsement. Ornelas lists "smoother bike lanes" and more bike trails as one if her favored infrastructure improvements, and Brinton, like Garcia, does not own a car and gets around town on his bike.
With Arcata's rep as an eco-groovy city, there's been much talk at candidate forums about sustainability and proposals for increasing the use of solar and other alternative energy systems and shrinking the city's carbon footprint. "Affordable housing" was another buzzword that popped up constantly, as it always does, although aside from inclusionary zoning (which no one opposes) there were no solid proposals for achieving this elusive affordability.
But when it comes down to it, the week-after-week work at council meeting is not focused on developing new programs. It's figuring out how to stretch a woefully inadequate budget to cover basic services and public safety.
As the incumbent Machi points out, successful candidates who've campaigned on lofty plans for increasing things like affordable housing or the city's overall sustainability will likely find their plans set aside.
Sitting at the desk in the back room of City Hall that serves as an office for all five councilmembers, he explained, "We have stacks of plans, the main one being the General Plan. Those are the accumulated wisdom of decades [crafted by] political officials and city staff. We're not going to throw those away and start over. Nothing is set in stone, but we are going to be implementing the existing plans, not coming up with new ones."
He asks, "When you're looking for a councilmember, do you want someone who's going to focus in on something peripheral? Or do you want someone who is going to focus on our basic services, which haven't been taken care of? You don't go on to new things until you've taken care of the basics."
Aside from setting priorities on what the city will do with our tax dollars, where do the candidates' views vary? They seem to agree on most issues, but when it comes to Arcata's hot-button issue -- medical marijuana -- you start to see a range of opinions. While all of them said they support Prop 215, they disagree on how to deal with the associated problems. Before Election Day the sitting council will vote on approval of new land use codes tightening limits on marijuana grown in residences and setting rules for marijuana dispensaries.
Brinton said he supports the new guidelines, which were drafted by the Arcata Planning Commission, although he sees an end to marijuana prohibition as the real solution to the problem. For now, he thinks the land use approach to regulation will do, but, "that will not curb the grow houses. We need to add five to 10 new police to our force and start some community policing methods. We need to get involved so we know where the grow houses are."
Going door-to-door, Winkler identified "the grow house problem" as a key concern among voters. He points out that he took a lead role in crafting the guidelines as a member of the planning commission. To implement the new code, he'd like to see two full-time officers assigned to a drug task force, "so we can shut down these illegal grow houses that are destroying housing in our community ... I think we have an emergency situation, it's like there's a fire and we have to send in the fire department to stop it."
Grow sees that as overkill. "We don't want a fascist police state with police going from house to house looking for people growing. That doesn't take into account the character of this town. People smoke marijuana here and 215 allows them to do it legally. We need to make sure the gangs stay away, but that's mostly in the hills."
Noting that "prohibition is the problem" and "patient access is No. 1," Garcia says he'd prefer to see the grows moved outdoors, for environmental reasons. Stating flatly that "the ganja industry benefits the community," he points out something that might seem obvious: "The ganja economy supports a lot of businesses here."
Ornelas suggests taxing the grow houses. "We have a utility users tax currently and marijuana grows are large users of energy, so maybe we could have a two-tiered utility tax for residences that would put a higher tax on high energy use. While it wouldn't solve the problem ... it could provide funding for the police that we need." (Ornelas also said she favors a "tippler's tax" put forward by Brinton, one hitting those who drink alcohol in Arcata bars, again to help fund the police force.)
Noting that officer overtime has become a budget problem, Machi has set "fully staffing our police department" as his highest priority, but he doesn't agree with Winkler's notion of using additional officers to root out grow houses. "There is a county-wide drug task force and we participate in it. As far as implementing what the planning department brought forward, the whole point of putting the ordinance together was to take it out of the police realm and bring it into zoning ... Somebody is going to have a place stinking of marijuana or some scary activity with trafficking to get the city's attention." And when that happens, it will be community development that handles it, not the police. Machi would much rather see a new ranger patrolling the community forest.
Handicapping the Arcata council race isn't easy -- no one's done any polling, so it's mostly guesswork -- but we'll give it a try. Newcomer Jason Grow has to be considered a long shot. A winning smile only takes you so far. He doesn't have a campaign organization, or signs, or buttons. Most people don't know who he is. If he pays some dues volunteering on some city committees, he could be a contender in some future election, but winning a seat this time out seems unlikely.
The odds on Garcia are even longer. His outsider status will get him a handful of votes, but he doesn't have a phone, a computer or even an e-mail address, so he's almost impossible to get hold of. The fact that he's barred from campus and still has charges pending against him doesn't help his cause.
That leaves four viable candidates in a race for three seats.
Michael Machi figures he'll get the most votes and he may be right. He's already won the seat twice. His experience is a plus, and in a field of progressive candidates, he's the closest to the center, which by default makes him the most attractive to those on the right.
Shane Brinton came off as insightful, bright, articulate and politically astute in the candidate forums. Despite his youth, or perhaps because of it, he has garnered a wide range of support, everyone from the politicos on the left to Mike Harvey, former chair of the local Republican Central Committee.
A boxed Machi/Brinton, Brinton/Machi exacta may well earn you a little money. Picking the trifecta (one, two and three) is another story.
Susan Ornelas wishes she'd done more door-to-door campaigning, but working the Saturday Farmer's Market crowd seemed to work well for her. The fact that her husband, "Bad" Bob Ornelas, was on the council for years between 1990 and 2004, through the turn of the century could prove a plus, although some will see it as a negative. She knows a whole lot of locals through her associations with sustainable agriculture and has garnered some fervent supporters.
Michael Winkler is a tireless doorknocker. As he goes door-to-door he tracks his support, recording it in a database, and also noting what issues concern the resident voter. By his count, he has enough votes to win, but that's assuming that everyone in a given household agrees with the voter who answered the door. His emphasis on strong enforcement of new marijuana rules will win him some votes, but it could also inspire a backlash.
Again, we're just making an educated guess about how this election might turn out. If you ask someone else, you'd likely get a different ranking. Take your pick, anyone can win. And whoever wins a seat on the dais, we wish you luck. You have your work cut out for you.
We'll reiterate, the council race is nonpartisan, but in case you were wondering, Shane Brinton is a registered Democrat. (He's endorsed by the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee and the Greens.) Michael Winkler was a Green Party member, but has switched to Democrat (he sought and won and endorsement from the HCDC and from Wes Chesbro, Patty Berg and John Woolley). Geronimo Garcia is the sole Green on the ballot. Susan Ornelas is a registered Republican. Like Brinton, she's endorsed by the local Greens. (She notes, "I changed registration when Bush started bringing us into so much debt; I wanted to argue for fiscal conservation from within the party. I have in times past been registered as a Democrat and as a Green.") Michael Machi and Jason Grow have no party affiliation.