The races for two seats on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors officially kicked into gear April 23 with the public watching the candidates square off in real time at a pair of forums.
In the race for the Fourth District seat held by two-term incumbent Virginia Bass, the League of Women Voters and the Rotary Club of Eureka hosted Bass and challengers Dani Burkhart and Mary Ann Lyons before a room of a few dozen people, mostly Rotarians, finishing lunch. About six hours later and 20 miles north, two-term Fifth District incumbent Ryan Sundberg took the stage with challenger Steve Madrone before a packed audience of more than a couple hundred at Azalea Hall. In both venues, there was a lot to talk about. A moderator peppered the candidates with questions, giving them a minute apiece to respond.
First elected to the board in 2010, Bass is the former mayor and a life-long resident of Eureka, where she also served on the city council, and she spent much of the forum touting her experience and accomplishments. Burkhart is an environmental planning consultant who has lived in Humboldt County for about nine years and worked primarily as a cannabis industry consultant before Bernie Sanders' failed presidential bid in 2016 inspired her to get involved in local politics via the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, becoming vice treasurer in 2017. Lyons, meanwhile, is an independent study teacher for kindergarten through eighth graders and a community organizer, most notably having served as the local chair of Barack Obama's 2007 primary campaign. All three are Humboldt State University graduates.
The first question the candidates faced at the forum — what they would do to attract non-cannabis-related businesses offered a contrast.
Burkhart responded that cannabis is important but not the "end all, be all" of the local economy, saying surveys have shown local employers need workers with industry-specific skills, so she'd like to see the county focus on training programs and fostering a better relationship with HSU. Bass said housing is a big economic barrier. While affordable housing is often talked about, she said there's also a shortage of "workforce" and "professional" housing that can make it hard for the county to attract businesses, as well as recruit and retain a skilled workforce. Lyons centered her answer on a single word: redundancy. She said the county needs more fiber optic infrastructure to prevent internet outages and make the county a more desirable home for businesses. She also pointed to vocational training as a need.
There was a bit more uniformity on railroads and trains. Lyons and Burkhart both talked enthusiastically about state Sen. Mike McGuire's pending bill to dissolve the North Coast Rail Authority and replace the north-south track with a trail, saying they believed better trail systems would prove an economic driver for the North Coast. Bass was more tepid in her support, saying there's some confusion about the bill, but said she thinks rails to trails has "always been an amazing concept." All three candidates indicated they are intrigued by the proposal to create an east-west rail line that would connect Humboldt Bay to the national rail grid — a proposal that at least one study has shown prohibitively expensive and not economically viable. The candidates said they like the idea, but all indicated county resources are better spent in other areas until proponents of the concept can push it further along.
Asked whether they support the ballot initiative to designate Humboldt County a "sanctuary county," which would prohibit "collaboration and information sharing" between county employees and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, except as required by law for some serious crimes, Lyons and Burkhart were emphatic in their support. But Bass said she opposed the measure, saying she thought it would give people a "false sense of security" because the county can't keep ICE from enforcing immigration laws within its jurisdiction and "won't change anything the sheriff currently does."
All three candidates said they are opposed to placing a safe injection site — a managed facility in which intravenous drug users could shoot up without fear of arrest or citation — within the Fourth District. On the subject of Measure Z funding — the revenue from a half-cent countywide sales tax increase — the candidates also agreed too much of the funding is going toward the sheriff's office and they'd like to see more spent on addressing homelessness and addiction. Burkhart and Lyons also indicated they felt Eureka — the county's retail center that is responsible for a hefty percentage of those Measure Z dollars — isn't getting its fair share of funding. Bass didn't seem to disagree, but said the county can only fund what's applied for and indicated she's "encouraging" the city of Eureka to apply for more funding.
On the subject of how to improve healthcare on the North Coast, Burkhart said the county needs to support re-launching HSU's nursing program and quality-of-life improvements (addressing blight, building trails) to attract skilled workers. Lyons said the county needs to do a better job of selling itself as a desirable place to live and come up with creative incentives, like potentially developing properties to serve as subsidized housing for medical professionals. She also said there's a "monopoly" on providers and the community needs to "work together" to come up with better solutions. Bass also voiced support for the HSU nursing program and said working to increase air travel options will make the area more desirable for upwardly mobile professionals. She also said the county needs to think outside the box, pointing to Open Door Community Health's practice of helping physicians' grandparents and support systems relocate to Humboldt County along with them.
The forum was recorded and will be broadcast on Access Humboldt. Check www.accesshumboldt.net for a schedule of show times or to view it online. The candidates are also slated to participate in a live KEET-TV forum May 9 at 7 p.m.
Minutes before the forum was slated to begin in McKinleyville, a handful of volunteers scrambled to put out extra chairs, the crowd already spilling out of the more than 150 chairs that had been set up. On stage, Sundberg — a lifetime McKinleyville resident and former insurance broker turned two-term incumbent and California Coastal commissioner — sat next to Madrone, a 45-year Humboldt County resident and executive director of the Mattole Salmon Group who teaches forestry and watershed management at HSU and has worked in watershed management, land-use planning and trail building. Both candidates are HSU graduates.
As in the Fourth District forum, the two candidates fielded more than two dozen questions with a minute each to respond.
In his opening statement, Sundberg touted his job performance, noting that four years ago he sat in the same hall "talking about jobs and public safety" and that today the sheriff's office is fully staffed, having added dozens of deputies. Of the county's 3.4 percent unemployment rate, Sundberg said, "I can't take credit for that but I think the general direction that our board has set has contributed." Madrone took the opening statement as a chance to introduce himself to the crowd, detailing his ties to the community — four kids, 16 grandkids — and his past work, which he said created jobs and brought some $20 million in grant funds into Humboldt County. He said he's working "to create lasting health and wealth" in the Fifth District.
When asked about the biggest environmental challenges facing the county, both candidates pointed to the cannabis industry, particularly the estimated 10,000 or so farms that haven't taken any steps toward compliance. Sundberg touted the county's work revamping its code enforcement unit and levying $10,000-a-day fines against some farms. The incumbent said the conversation needs to be split between compliant and uncompliant farms, as those in compliance are "sustainable farms at this point." Madrone countered that the county's ordinance rewards bad actors and hasn't done enough to protect small farmers.
On a related note, the candidates were asked about whether they would permit industries using "dangerous chemicals in floodplains," an obvious reference to Mercer-Fraser Co.'s now defunct proposal to put a cannabis concentrate manufacturing facility on its property in Glendale, adjacent to where the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District pulls the majority of Humboldt County's drinking water from the Mad River.
Sundberg responded that Mercer-Fraser's proposal was actually to place the the facility "2 feet" above the floodplain and that the project's volatile chemical was actually alcohol. Nonetheless, Sundberg said he "was not supportive" of the project and made clear it "will not be coming back, either, for any rumor starters."
Madrone said 2 feet is still too close for comfort and pointed out that the planning commission approved the project. Moving forward, Madrone said there were changes made in the General Plan Update process that make way for similar changes and give developers "false hope."
The challenger also made several references to what he sees as a potential conflict of interest with Sundberg and other unspecified supervisors who have taken large campaign contributions from the cannabis industry. Madrone said he has not — and will not — take any contributions from large players in the commercial cannabis industry. "When you're elected, the public trust is so important," Madrone said, adding that even the appearance of a conflict should be grounds for a supervisor to recuse himself or herself from a vote.
Sundberg countered that whenever there's a question surrounding a conflict of interest, he has consulted county counsel and followed the office's advice. Specifically on the subject of campaign finances, Sundberg said he's gotten a "whole bunch" of maximum donations of $1,500, but said those have come from folks in both the pro- and anti-cannabis camps.
As in the Fourth District, the candidates were also asked whether they support the "sanctuary county" initiative. Madrone said he does, while Sundberg said he doesn't. Sundberg said it would take a tool away from the sheriff to deal with serious and violent felons, adding that the sheriff's office has only proactively contacted ICE twice in the last couple of years, once to deal with a child pornography suspect and once for a large-scale drug trafficker.
The candidates also faced a number of McKinleyville-specific questions. Regarding a controversial proposal to put a Dollar General store in a predominantly residential neighborhood across the street from McKinleyville High School, Sundberg said the project is principally permitted under the parcel's commercial zoning and there isn't much the county can do. Madrone countered that he doesn't think it's a "done deal" and the county needs to do a better job of informing residents of potential zoning changes. Asked about the pending construction of a Department of Health and Human Services service center in town, Sundberg stressed that the project is only designed to serve children and families. Drug treatment services, and those for the homeless, "they're staying in Eureka," Sundberg said. Madrone said, "These issues don't just exist in Eureka," and he favored a "dispersed approach" in which every community has the services to address the issues it faces.
To watch the full forum — in which the candidates also weighed in on the McKinleyville Town Center plans, community forests and water quality at Clam Beach — visit Access Humboldt. Madrone and Sundberg are also slated to square off again at 7 p.m. on May 2 at the Willow Creek Community Services District Office and again on KEET-TV May 7 at 7 p.m.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.