Three candidates — Natalie Arroyo, Kim Bergel and Mike Newman — are running to represent Humboldt County's Fourth District in the June election, which marks the first incumbent-less race for the seat in 35 years.
Supervisor Virginia Bass announced earlier this year that she would not be seeking reelection after serving the district that encompasses the city of Eureka and the Samoa Peninsula for the last 12 years.
Each of the three hopefuls shares Eureka City Council experience, with Arroyo, a U.S. Coast Guard Reserve officer and resources manager with Redwood Community Action Agency, and Bergel, an instructional aide for Eureka City Schools, both sitting councilmembers who will be termed out this year. Newman, an insurance agent, previously served on the council from 2010 through 2014 and is currently a Humboldt County planning commissioner.
With June 7 just around the corner, the Journal interviewed Arroyo, Bergel and Newman, asking them about issues impacting the region, including homelessness, economic growth, their budget priorities and climate change. Find out what they had to say below.
NCJ: Homelessness and housing insecurity is a nationwide problem but also an acute one in Humboldt County, with the Fourth District bearing much of the weight. What steps can the county government take to address this issue, which is complex with myriad causes?
Arroyo: Taking advantage of opportunities for state funding to "pretty assertively" build permanent support and crisis housing with wrap-around services is one of the most important things for the county to do, Arroyo said.
"That's kind of what I see is the real gap right now in what we are providing in our community, " she said. "It's an easy sell to convince people, to convince the community, to accept housing for homeless veterans or housing for seniors who are low income, and it's quite challenging to gather the political will and courage to move forward with projects that serve the most vulnerable and hardest to interact with people in our community."
She notes that those facing mental and behavioral health problems are generally the same people who generate the most concern from the community and she understands residents are frustrated. Meanwhile, Arroyo said, the county has funding but hasn't decided whether to build the type of facility needed to help address those issues.
"We have to get to the point where we are going to take the steps and get over some of the pushback to ultimately do what everyone is demanding of us and that's going to take political courage, and that's what I've done in Eureka and that's what I'll bring to the county," she said.
Bergel: With many in the community negatively impacted by issues associated with mental health and houselessness, innovative housing options are a "critical piece of the puzzle," Bergel said, noting work done by the city of Eureka with parking lot container villages and trailers.
The problem the city faces, however, is not having enough extra land, so on the county level, she said, it's important to create more of those options, ranging from attached dwelling units and tiny house villages to boarding houses for those facing mental health issues that provide support and wrap-around services.
When someone is placed in a house or apartment after living on the streets for a long period, it can be a difficult transition, Bergel said, adding that she's talked with people who say they can feel like the walls are closing in and need to have someone to talk to, even if it's 2 a.m.
"So having supports in place is going to be critical to ensuring that people stay housed, rather than just house them and then have them bounce out," she said, also noting the state is making funding available to support such programs.
Newman: Noting it's a multi-faceted issue, Newman said he wants to see "more solutions and more direction toward trying to stem the tide upstream," and that will take a multitude of agencies, including cities, the county and state working together.
He noted it's been "found and documented" that a majority of those living on the streets did not come to the area from other places but are "local folks," with mental health and addiction issues often playing interconnected roles. Newman pointed to the importance of moving forward with the residential mental health facility that the county has received funds to build.
But, he said, the county needs to find a site, with Eureka a likely candidate due to the centralization of county services and the concentration of homeless residents living in and around the city limits.
"So there has been some pushback on trying to find a location and I want to work toward finding a location that we can use that is not dilapidated and would not cost an arm and a leg ... to bring it up to what needs to be done in an expedient manner, because we need to have that facility open sooner rather than later," Newman said.
NCJ: What can county government do to promote economic growth and — with the stresses the local cannabis industry is going through — what can/should county government do to support those working within the compliance process?
Arroyo: While the need to attract businesses with good paying jobs to the area remains, Arroyo noted it's a job seekers' market right now and the county also needs to attract people to fill local openings in sectors ranging from the medical field and education to government services. The county can do that, she said, by providing adequate housing and community assets like trails, so prospective employees "want to come here and stay."
She also pointed to the potential of offshore wind energy development as an opportunity to "really transform our region, to create a lot of investment and to bring a lot of dollars to our region that will pay dividends in the long term."
There, she said, the county's role "is to really understand the process, understand the land-use needs, then collaborate with the harbor district and other agencies to really ensure that the infrastructure we have can support those uses, and then also to ensure that we are on top of, to the extent we can be, collaborating with other agencies in getting through the regulatory process."
With the cannabis industry, Arroyo said many of the issues originate outside of Humboldt, including market forces. On the local level, she said the county has "a continued role in seeing that there is compliance with the existing rules and if the rules don't work anymore, then to change them," adding that's something the cannabis community and county staff needs to work on, with the supervisors' February decision to provide some Measure S tax relief as a "stopgap."
Bergel: Bergel said, "the idea that we are charging cannabis growers a cultivation tax just boggles the mind," with no other farmers — whether they are growing tomatoes or sunflowers — facing the same issue.
Moving forward, she said, "fair taxes and streamlining permits are going to be critical.
"I think it took a lot of courage and it takes a lot of courage to come out of the green closet and want to be legal and to want to be part of our community, and so we need to have those supports in place," she said, adding those same basic principles apply to anyone starting a business.
Bergel also noted the Nordic AquaFarms' fish farm proposed for the former Samoa Pulp Mill site, saying she would like to see more businesses like that come forward.
"That business has been 100 percent upfront — they didn't come in and try to sneak anything in," Bergel said. "They reached out to the public immediately, they've been having conversions, they've worked with environmentalists who have had issues and tried to mitigate the problems. This is the kind of community that I want to work with, businesses that care about our community and population and our environment to move things forward in a healthy way."
Newman: The county, Newman said, needs to make it easier for businesses to move here, noting the opportunity for satellite-type offices to set up in the area with the arrival of the trans-Pacific fiber optic cable that will enhance previous work done to bring high speed broadband service to the region.
"Being pro-business means more tax dollars are coming in and that means that we can pay for more services," he said, noting the tech industry, especially, can bring in and maintain living wage, green jobs that don't impact the area.
Newman also noted the importance of supporting entrepreneurs "to start up what their heart desires in business" and, in the Fourth District specifically, bringing in new industries to the Samoa Peninsula, like those that could service a potential wind turbine hub, "to use our harbor and bay to its best potential," along with aquaculture.
On the cannabis side, Newman said the county needs to change the Measure S cultivation tax structure to align more with those applied to all other agriculture products, "where you are taxed when you sell the product."
NCJ: With the county facing a projected $18 million budget deficit next fiscal year, what are some of your budget priorities and how might the board of supervisors address the challenges and issues surrounding the Auditor-Controller's Office?
Arroyo: Arroyo said she wants to have conversations about different options, including reallocations or the restructuring of county departments, with retaining staff her top priority.
"I would be more in favor of an across-the-board cut to all departments than I would be to a deep cut in one department, and I just think that's easier for people to stomach and to understand and doesn't devalue any of the work that departments do because there's so much that's critical that the county does," she said.
On the subject of the Auditor-Controller's Office, Arroyo said there's "obviously a need for a path forward in completing our most important reports," noting she is neither an accountant nor an auditor but knows "there are many organizations that have experienced the impacts of the belated reports and there are certainly facets in the county that are very frustrated and concerned."
"So I know coming into that that it is going to be a hot-button issue, and I will say that I teach conflict resolution, so I don't think it's helpful to lay blame without being part of the organization yet," Arroyo said, adding that, if elected, she "will certainly make it a top priority to understand that issue more deeply."
Bergel: Addressing climate change, providing fair pay to retain county staff, funding for mental health services and housing support, and programs to support businesses struggling in the wake of the pandemic, are all important issues on the budgetary front, Bergel said.
She noted mental health is a "critical piece," saying she believes 60 to 70 percent of issues in the region are related to "mental health issues, the lack of services or opportunities for folks."
"A healthy community lifts each other up and, once we start lifting folks up ... the impact can be just amazing, and I really look forward to working on that as well," she said.
In regard to the Auditor-Controller's Office, Bergel said she does believe the "bills need to be paid and that we definitely need to have those things changing for us," but declined to comment further, saying it "seems like it's an ongoing investigation and I don't feel comfortable with that."
Newman: As far as budget priorities, Newman said his is "public safety first," which includes working with state officials on what can be done to alleviate impacts on the county jail from the influx of inmates coming from prisons, so "we are not doing catch and release of offenders."
He said that, in the past few years, the county had excess funds but, with the state of the economy and inflation, it's come to the point that "we need to take a stand and really look at what is important to fund."
As far as any potential cuts, Newman said he likes to "look at individual things as much as possible," rather than across-the-board reductions but "would hesitate to make any predictions at this point as to what I would support or not support, without looking and hearing from all sides, department heads, as well as the public."
On the subject of the Auditor-Controller's Office, he said the failure to file timely financial reports with the state is creating a "big shortfall for the county involving access to outside monies to help facilitate our infrastructure, as well as these state grants and federal grants for housing, as well as social services."
He concluded: "We need to change the way that the AC is handling everything there, and I further put that I would like to see a different person heading that job."
NCJ: The long-awaited draft of the Climate Action Plan for Humboldt was just released, what can the supervisors do to push forward implementation of the goals and what would be some of your priorities on the local level to address the effects of climate change.
Arroyo: Describing climate change as one of the biggest topics "we need to be reckoning with," Arroyo said she appreciates the county taking the lead in developing the document, noting it is currently out for public review.
For her, fuel and greenhouse gas reduction and carbon sequestration opportunities, as well as infrastructure development to enhance people's ability to use "active modes of transportation whenever possible, especially in our more urban communities," including much of the Fourth District, are among the most important pieces, she said.
The latter, Arroyo said, along with improving transportation networks, such as increasing the number of bus stops and providing service at later times, will help decrease the need for single motorist car trips.
Arroyo said it's "imperative" to take a regional approach to the issue and points to the role that joint power authorities and organizations like the Humboldt Transit Authority, the Humboldt County Association of Governments and the North Coast Research Partnership will play in moving the plan forward.
"We can't just get there in one hop," she said. "We really have these steps to take to increase the capacity of our community to do the work outlined in the Climate Action Plan."
Bergel: Bergel said she sees the CAP as a "critical" component in addressing the issue. A good place to start, she said, is looking at the "low-hanging fruit" in the plan and working "at the things we can get done right away."
"We know we are in crisis," Bergel said. "Climate change and sea level rise, it's very real."
While many in the region are well-versed on the effects climate change is going to have locally, there are others who don't know how they can make a positive impact.
"Education and outreach are going to be very, very important in moving things forward," Bergel said. "I also think that we need to have some buy-in with our state officials and with the state to move projects forward that are going to benefit all of us. I really like the idea of wind energy, I think that's going to be a great boon for us on many levels. This idea of the transit center and trying to mitigate emission, all of these things are pieces of the puzzle that we need to continue to address and move forward on."
Newman: One of the main things the county will need to do, Newman said, is work to get state and federal help on shoring up and maintaining the region's levies to protect the wide swaths of land, much of it in agricultural use, at risk from a potential breach.
"So, it's very important to keep those levies and get the money secured to bring those up to speed," he said. "That's No. 1 and that's something the county can do, with help."
Newman also pointed to the electrification mandates coming down, but said he believes those are "short-sighted because there's new technologies on the horizon that need to be explored" and a better path forward would be requirements "to go to carbon neutral, as much as possible, and alternative energy means."
Find out more about the Fourth District candidates by reading their answers to a Journal questionnaire canvassing everything from their favorite hobby to their view of the biggest issues facing the county's most urban district. Spoiler alert: Arroyo listed roller derby as her favorite hobby, while Bergal said gardening and Newman cited hiking and exploring state and national parks along with motorcycle riding.