There's a lot at stake Nov. 8, when voters across the country will take to the polls. That much is obvious. But while Donald and Hillary are capturing all the headlines, Humboldt County voters will be staring down 17 state propositions and a total of 18 local measures. Below, we've taken a closer look at four of these issues we find interesting and important. But we've admittedly left a lot on the cutting room floor. Please, take the time to get informed. Democracy, after all, is not a spectator sport. And, most of all, make sure to register to vote before the Oct. 24 deadline.
— Thadeus Greenson
Cannabis Industry Split on Proposition 64
There are 17 state propositions on the California ballot this year, but none carry higher stakes for Humboldt County than Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. In fact, with the local marijuana industry comprising at least 4,000 grow operations, employing tens of thousands of people and accounting for 40 percent of the local economy, by some estimates, the proposition might be one of the more important Humboldt County voters have ever seen.
And while a recent poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California found that 58 percent of likely voters favor the initiative, it seems those in the industry are sharply divided on it for a number of reasons. Some fear the litany of regulatory red tape and taxes it will bring to the industry, while others fear it opens the door for corporate agriculture to drive out small farmers. Still others worry it will tear apart a medical cannabis industry and framework that many feel is working well for the state's 800,000 patients.
If passed, Proposition 64 would legalize the use and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for those age 21 and older. It would decrease a host of marijuana related crimes, authorize re-sentencing for folks currently incarcerated for conduct the initiative will legalize and give convicts a path to expunge their records. It designates state agencies to license and regulate the industry, establishing packaging, labeling, advertising and marketing standards and restrictions.
And it would tax the industry at two levels, imposing a $9.25 per ounce tax on cultivation and a 15 percent retail sales tax. The estimated tax revenue of up to $1 billion would be earmarked for research, youth programs, environmental remediation and programs designed to reduce driving under the influence and "negative impacts on health or safety resulting from the proposition."
Statewide, much of the debate surrounding the proposition has centered on the moral and health impacts of legalizing recreational marijuana use, but industry concerns are more specific.
The California Growers Association recently conducted a survey of 770 industry members, Hezekiah Allen, the group's executive director, told the Los Angeles Times. The result was an even split — with 31 percent of respondents opposing the measure, 31 percent supporting it and 38 percent undecided.
"We are totally divided," Allen told the Times. "We have strongly mixed opinions."
The divide seems to stem from industry insiders' strong desire to see marijuana legalized mixed with a strong fear of a major shift in the business landscape, the result of higher tax rates, regulatory fees and costs, and a new model that would essentially replace the state's medical framework.
Sitting at an Old Town Eureka coffee shop recently, Proposition 64 spokesperson Jason Kinney said the initiative wasn't written with an agenda. Instead, he said, proponents took a large lump of funding from Facebook President Sean Parker with one simple directive: To come up with good public policy to replace the failure of prohibition.
Kinney said framers of the initiative took the work of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's blue ribbon task force on cannabis, looked at legalization frameworks already in place in other states, and wrote the 62-page Proposition 64. Kinney said it was clear from looking at Colorado that trying to have parallel medical and recreational frameworks posed problems with regulating supply chains and other issues.
While Kinney said he understands the fears of small farmers facing a rapidly changing industry, he said Proposition 64 was crafted with them in mind. "We wanted to make sure that — to the greatest extent possible — we protected small businesses," he said.
The initiative includes a provision that prohibits cultivation sites larger than an acre for the first five years, allowing small farmers a head start in the new recreational industry, he said. Additionally, he said the legislation includes provisions for appellation designations and other things designed to support a "craft" industry.
But some in the industry point to the new taxes — which will come on top of local ones — and costly regulation as signs that their margins will shrink. Proponents of the initiative concede this is likely true, but believe the substantial growth in volume that will accompany recreational use will make up for it, with some projecting it would result in a doubling of the state's $2.76 billion in medical cannabis sales by 2020. There's also some concern that the added taxes and production costs would render retail rates unaffordable for some current medical patients.
While Proposition 64 is an initiative, Kinney was careful to note that was written with language that will allow it to be modified by the state legislature as needed, specifically pointing out that there's a provision that would allow the state to impose a cultivation cap in five years if needed.
There's no question that Proposition 64 would bring a sea change for Humboldt County's marijuana industry, which is already in multiple levels of flux, with new county and state regulations. But if the polling numbers are correct, local growers would be wise to brace for impact, regardless of where their support lies.
— Thadeus Greenson
Measure P: Eureka Ponders its Warding Ways
One of the questions before Eureka voters this November is whether councilmembers should be elected by the residents of individual wards or the current practice of a citywide ballot.
What some view as an election process as disjointed as the boundary lines dividing Eureka's five wards, others consider a tried-and-true system of selecting councilmembers that has served the city well for nearly nine decades.
The current approach is a mixture of the most common election methods: at-large and by-district. A citywide vote selects the councilmembers but each seat represents a specific ward and there are residency requirements for candidates.
Depending on whom you ask, Eureka's existing process is either a "best of both worlds" approach that allows for greater accountability or an entrenched system that "rewards the wealthy" and could expose the city to a lawsuit.
Both sides claim the mantle of encouraging a more responsive council.
The Eureka City Council voted 3-2 in July to put Measure P before voters after City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson brought the proposal forward, citing possible litigation concerns with the current system under the California Voter Rights Act.
Several California cities have been sued over the years on allegations that the at-large system disenfranchises minority voters. Many ended up settling out of court — in some cases for hefty amounts — and switching to district-based elections.
"Several cities are moving in the direction of by-district elections but for a variety of reasons," wrote Dane Hutchings, a legislative representative for the League of California Cities, in an email to the Journal. "Chief among them is the threat of litigation under the CVRA. For the past five to seven years cities have been targeted with several demand letters being sent to cities primarily in Southern California. Some cities, however, do believe that this is the most equitable way of having a representative council."
Ward-based elections aren't new to Eureka. In fact, that's where the city first started before voters approved the current system back in 1928. A 15-member city charter commission recommended staying the course in 1976.
Eureka is now poised to come full circle — depending how voters land on the issue.
The main arguments on both sides boil down to representation, accountability and accessibility.
Councilmember Linda Atkins, who is termed out from running this year, says one of the major issues she sees with the current system is the money it takes to mount a citywide versus ward-based campaign.
That, she notes, and the possibility of a costly lawsuit.
"People basically like the idea of being able to elect their own representatives and decrease costs," says Atkins, who along with councilmembers Kim Bergel and Natalie Arroyo supported placing Measure P before voters.
The three councilmembers also submitted the ballot argument in favor of the measure, which states it's the "only one proven to stand up to legal challenges under the California Voters Rights Act."
Atkins worked on a similar effort in 2010 that fell short of the needed signatures be placed on the ballot. All of Humboldt County's other municipalities use a straight at-large system without restrictions on where councilmembers live in the city.
Former Councilmember Mike Newman, who signed the official ballot argument against Measure P with councilmembers Marian Brady and Melinda Ciarabellini and 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn, says a small town like Eureka is simply better served with all voters having a voice in every election.
Ciarabellini and Brady cast the dissenting votes in July's decision to move forward with Measure P.
"I believe that having every citizen be able to vote for every councilmember is important, not just voters in a particular area," he says, adding that might be a more appropriate formula for large municipalities.
"When you have a smaller city, it's not conducive to the citizens to not be able to vote on every council member," Newman says.
Newman also notes that he sees Eureka's potential exposure to voter rights litigation as "very minute."
Atkins says a ward-based system would lay the groundwork for grassroots campaigns by limiting the number of people a potential candidate might need to reach with fliers and door-to-door outreach.
That, she says, would encourage more participation in a city that has seen at least one seat go unopposed in the last four elections.
"The people are not voicing their opinion when there's no challenger," she says, adding she's talked to folks who are apprehensive about the potential costs of a citywide campaign.
While more money doesn't always translate to victory — Arroyo and Bergel, for example, both faced well-funded incumbents — Atkins says she believes the prospect of fundraising can be a deterrent for people who don't see how they can compete with candidates who can afford costly advertising and enough signs to blanket the city.
Newman has a different view, saying the benefits of having all councilmembers accountable to all city voters outweighs the potential campaign costs of reaching out to more constituents, especially in the age of social media.
A particular councilmember might not agree with a ward resident's views on an issue and ward-based voting could leave residents with fewer options for having their concerns addressed, Newman adds.
"The councilmembers who are going to be responsive are and the ones who aren't going to be responsive won't," she says.
"I think it will actually make councilmembers look around themselves a little bit and be more responsible to their area," Atkins adds. "I think that's a good thing."
Looking back at 10 years of elections, there are only two instances when a ward-only vote would have changed the outcome — in both cases for Ron Kuhnel — who took Ward 3 over Councilmember Jeff Leonard in 2006 and Newman in 2010.
Comparing the canvasses of past elections is a somewhat rough approximation with ward precincts sometimes overlapping because council elections are currently conducted on a citywide basis, according to county Elections Manager Kelly Sanders.
She says it would be "a minor change for (the elections office) to convert the City of Eureka's contests from voting at-large to voting by-ward."
While the at-large by-district process Eureka now uses may be a tongue-twister, Hutchings of the League of California Cities says it's not that uncommon.
The Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove — population of 168,000 — and Bay Area municipality of Stockton — with about 300,000 residents — each use similar methods, though with a slight twist in the latter city.
In Stockton, council candidates are voted on by district residents in the June primary before moving to a citywide ballot in the general election. Like Eureka, voters there are being asked whether to move to a district-based system in November.
The potential of litigation is one of the points made in Stockton's official ballot argument.
Hutchings said the threshold to show "racially polarized voting and/or vote dilution is incredibly low" and the rights to recover attorney fees "are incredibly generous" under the voting rights act.
"This is also one of the reasons some private attorneys have turned CVRA lawsuits into a cottage industry," he writes in an email.
Even if voters reject Measure P, the city could still face a lawsuit, Hutchings says.
"We have seen some of the most costly settlements ranging in the millions, when a city attempts to change their election method through the ballot, that ballot measure fails, and the lawsuit continues until a judge forces a city to move to district based elections," he writes.
Elk Grove City Clerk Jason Lindgren says "there has been discussion" about switching to a by-district election there and the city is awaiting action by the California Legislature, which would allow general law cities to make the switch without going to the voters.
Because Eureka has its own charter — which outlines all things procedural from general regulations to the city manager's duties — any change to the document requires an election.
Thomas Hannah, a former city councilmember who was also elected by voters to serve on the 1976 charter commission, says the 15 members arrived at a clear consensus when it came to recommending the current election process continue.
"Each ward has equal representation yet each council member is responsible to all the citizens of Eureka," Hannah says, an approach they deemed the "Doctrine of Fairness."
To change that, he says, would be a step back to a time when "ward bosses" ruled the city before Eureka switched to a city manager form of government in 1958.
Having each seat's election in the hands of a small percentage of the population would, he says, introduce "unwanted partisanship" into the city's decision-making process.
"Every person has a councilmember to turn to yet it's an all-city election, and the city is not that big to have a ward system," Hannah says. "This business of economics and discrimination is smoke and mirrors."
Meanwhile, the city is preparing.
Eureka City Clerk Pam Powell says they are in a "little bit of a wait and see" mode at City Hall but are researching what it would take to implement a true ward system.
The last time ward boundaries were adjusted was 40 years ago, when the charter commission convened. With councilmember elections conducted on a citywide basis, she says there wasn't the same need to ensure each ward had a balanced number of residents.
If Measure P passes, that will change and change quickly.
Powell says a committee would likely be formed to examine the wards and look at the process used by the county, where the district boundaries are adjusted after each census.
"If any adjustments are required we wanted to get that in place before next cycle of elections, which would be in two years," she says.
— Kimberly Wear
Measure U: Road Rage
There's no debate that Humboldt County's roads are failing. And no one disputes the county's figure that it has accumulated between $200 and $250 million in deferred maintenance on its roads, nor that the figure will only grow without serious intervention.
Enter Measure U, a proposed ordinance put to voters by the Humboldt County Association of Governments that would impose a half-percent countywide sales tax for 20 years to fund road maintenance and repairs, as well as some limited trails work and for the "retention of existing commercial air service."
The tax would be imposed in unincorporated areas of the county as well as in all seven of its cities, with revenue split up between the entities based on a formula that would allocate about 42 percent to the county, 32 percent to Eureka, 11 percent to Arcata, 7 percent to Fortuna and lesser amounts for smaller cities. The county and the individual cities would then decide how to prioritize projects to spend the funds on.
While the sorry state of Humboldt County's roads is not in debate, not everyone is on board with Measure U, which would raise sales tax rates in the county's unincorporated areas to 8.5 percent, which would be roughly 10 percent higher than the state average.
At a recent forum hosted by the Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce, concerned citizen Kent Sawatzky, who authored the ballot argument against Measure U, said he doesn't want to see much-needed road funding poured into the airport and trails. Further, Sawatzky said there are already taxes in place that could pay for road repairs. "We have a problem with double — and sometimes triple — taxation," he said, pointing to the gas tax, 2014's county sales tax and now Measure U.
Humboldt County 3rd District Supervisor Mark Lovelace, arguing in favor of the measure at the forum, responded that the new tax would help Humboldt County become more "self reliant," which in turn could help it leverage state and federal funds for projects. Further, he said, 99.5 percent of the revenue would be spent by local agencies directly accountable to their constituents.
What's clear is that staying the course isn't a viable option. The deferred maintenance tab referenced above is only growing, as the county Public Works Department estimates it needs about $20 million annually to properly maintain its roads — things like cleaning out culverts and filling potholes — but gets only $10 million. Meanwhile, the gas tax revenue used to fund road repairs continues to plummet.
— Thadeus Greenson
Measure V: A Spicy Waffle
There's an old quote that often gets dusted off and trotted out amid debates over rent control in mobile home parks. It was back in April of 2014, and Frank Rolfe, a mobile home park magnate who owned more than 100 parks at the time, was talking to Bloomberg about the business. "We're like a Waffle House where the customers are chained to their booths," he said.
Rolfe insists the the quote was taken out of context, and that he was simply talking about the "incredibly consistent revenues" mobile home parks bring in compared to more volatile investments, like restaurants. Whatever the context of Rolfe's quote, it speaks to the feelings of many tenants of Humboldt County's many mobile home parks, which account for roughly 9 percent of the county's housing units.
Those residents are in the midst of a kind of David versus Goliath fight, running a grassroots campaign to pass Measure V, which would impose rent control on the 42 mobile home parks in the county's unincorporated areas. Measure V's proponents are being out-fundraised $23-to-$1 by their opposition, which has raised $135,000 from just seven out-of-town donors intent on killing the measure. To carry Rolfe's metaphor a step further, proponents of Measure V argue that, while it wouldn't break their chains, it would keep the restaurant from spiking the cost of waffles and bring a bit of fairness to the relationship.
Now, to fully understand Measure V and the industry in general, you first have to understand that the term "mobile home park" is a bit of a misnomer as most of the homes aren't, in fact, mobile. Instead, they are manufactured homes placed on slab foundations in parks. The homes are generally owned by their occupants, who pay all utilities and upkeep, in addition to a monthly rental fee to the park for providing them a space.
The manufactured homes can be moved, but at great cost ($5,000 by conservative estimates), which generally isn't an option for many of the parks' fixed-income residents. This can leave tenants who can no longer afford the rent with only one viable option: sell their homes and move elsewhere.
Based on anecdotal evidence, it seems Humboldt County's mobile home park residents pay anywhere from $400 to $800 a month to rent their park spaces. The problem, says Patti Rose, who lives in the Northwoods Mobile Home Park in McKinleyville, is that there's nothing prohibiting park owners from charging whatever they want for the spaces, or from raising rents multiple times. She pointed to one local park that raised rents by 27 percent in 2014, and then by another 21 percent in 2015.
"There's nothing to stop them," Rose says. "We are a captive audience and, to me, that's grossly unfair."
Measure V, she says, would bring some equity. Specifically, it would prohibit park owners from raising rents more than once a year, and would only allow the raises to keep pace with inflation under the Consumer Price Index. When a mobile home is sold, park owners can raise the new tenant's rent by five percent from what the previous tenant had been paying. Park owners would be able to raise rents to help finance park improvements, like a new laundry facility or major maintenance, but only if more than half of the tenants approve.
Opponents of Measure V point to two reasons, the first philosophical, the second practical. They argue the initiative is a gross violation of private property rights, which should leave the free market as the only restraint on what a park owner can choose to rent out his or her spaces for. And they point to the city of Carson, which a federal jury recently ordered to pay $3.3 million in damages to a mobile home park owner, finding the city's rent control ordinance had violated his constitutional rights. Measure V is a liability, they argue, and one that cash-strapped Humboldt County cannot afford.
Numerous attempts to reach the No on Measure V campaign before deadline were unsuccessful.
Rose, for her part, insists that Measure V — which she and a couple of other park residents took out an $800 loan to have written — accounts for past missteps in other jurisdictions, and is on solid legal footing. She says it is based off one that has been in place in the city of Marina since 2011 and hasn't been challenged.
The stage is set for an epic Humboldt County election day showdown, one that pits property rights, the free market and potential legal liabilities against a people, largely poor, most of them seniors, trying to stay in their homes.
— Thadeus Greenson