Letter-writer Leo Sears reminded Journal and Times-Standard readers last week that in 2012, in this opinion column, I gave "kudos to [4th District Supervisor Virginia] Bass for chairing an emotional discussion, keeping everyone civil, and for finding a solution — a way forward" as chair of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. The agenda item that day was the Bay Trail. Readers may recall that was the year I took leave of my senses and worked 20 to 30 hours a week lobbying individuals, agencies and the North Coast Railroad Authority's board to let the public use the railroad right-of-way for a non-motorized trail between Eureka and Arcata. (In December of that year, trail advocates were successful, and last year the California Coastal Commission incorporated the trail into Caltrans' 101 Improvement Project.)
For the record, readers should not conclude that my praise of Bass on the Bay Trail vote was a ringing endorsement. First, the truth in Supervisors Chambers that day in 2012 was that Bass and 5th District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg were set to vote against the trail request because they didn't want to offend a few railroad advocates who were trying to hold the trail hostage until the train returns, if it ever does. (Long story short, they changed their votes to support the trail at the last minute.) Second, Mr. Sears' letter fails to mention any of the columns I've written since. Here are some highlights:
• June 13, 2013: I opined that the current crop of supervisors was "unimpressive" for supporting (4-1) 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell's clumsy rewrite of the guiding principles of the General Plan Update (GPU) that called for landowners to be "honored." They later backpedaled, rewriting her rewrite after receiving a dose of reality from the public.
• Oct. 24, 2013: Bass makes realtors and developers even more happy by making the motion to remove language that focused development where services already exist and discouraged conversion of resource lands to other uses. Another 4-1 vote and not a good day for those who believe in good, long-range land use planning. I suggested that Bass and Sundberg needed challengers in 2014.
• Feb. 26, 2014: After the supervisors had inexplicably sent the almost-finished GPU back to the planning commission, commissioners quickly got to work and began to unravel stream protection — an unraveling that would surely have ended up being challenged in court — and stripping language supporting the goal of a "countywide trail system" because some landowners in SoHum are worried about potential trespassers. (Note to those landowners: I think you can afford a trip to France. Please go hike the Grande Randonnée, a national treasure.)
• March 6, 2014: I urgently urged the public to attend the March 10 supervisors' meeting to support trails and stream protection. At that meeting, Bass and Sundberg admitted sending the GPU back to the planning commission was a mistake.
• March 13, 2014: I expressed gratitude that Chris Kerrigan and Sharon Latour stepped forward to create contested races in the 4th and 5th districts, respectively. We need these discussions. "There will be important questions asked and hopefully answered."
So how are these races progressing? Bass and Sundberg will likely get re-elected, as I've said before. They have deep roots in their districts and huge name recognition. They are hardworking and attentive to most constituents. (I say "most" because I'm still waiting to get an appointment with my supervisor.) They have plenty of campaign money, courtesy of developers, builders and real estate folks who profit as more parcels are made available no matter where they are located. Bass and Sundberg are nice people, relatively young and photogenic, and all that counts in elections, whether it should or not. I actually think they both did a pretty good job their first two years in office, sitting on a more balanced board of supervisors and benefiting from the leadership, tutoring and moderate influence of their veteran colleagues Jimmy Smith and Clif Clendenen.
Then two years ago — when the private corporation Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights' deep pockets helped put Rex Bohn in office to replace Smith in the 1st District and former HumCPR Executive Director Estelle Fennell to replace Clendenen in the 2nd — the board became gung-ho for development pretty much anywhere there's a road, other infrastructure be damned. And the Humboldt County Planning Commission this board then collectively appointed? Worse. (Sundberg's appointment, Susan Masten, is the only exception.)
In time, the pendulum will swing back to a state of better land use planning and stronger resource and environmental protection, which this county deserves.
In fact, we are already seeing some votes come out of this board that are more encouraging in recent weeks. The Housing Element of the General Plan passed last week, supporting responsible in-fill for much needed multi-unit, low-income and senior housing. And Monday, the supervisors reversed their planning commission and maintained the draft GPU's intent, inserting the stated goal of a regional trail system into the Conservation and Open Space Element (See Blogjammin', pg. 10).
I'd like to think that the board's recent elevated state of consciousness on these issues is due in part to two indisputable events: that Kerrigan and Latour stepped up to challenge the incumbents, and that Humboldt citizens kicked up a fuss when the board veered away from the core values of the majority and the consensus that we had all reached after more than a decade of effort on the GPU.
A few things still ring sadly false so far this campaign season. Bass claims credit for the $2 million grant awarded to Bay Trail planning, when her contribution was merely a "yes" vote to apply for the grant. Sundberg voted aye as well, but he went a step further on the campaign trail, claiming in the recent KEET-TV debate: "I personally participated in the Bay Trail Plan." I'm not sure how or when, maybe attending staff briefings. We didn't get a chance to ask him. More egregious was his claim in the same debate that he "reaches out to opponents" to seek out different opinions, especially "on controversial things. ... I want to hear both sides." In fact, Sundberg is actively boycotting our news department, not returning emails and phone calls, and he was the only candidate to refuse to participate in our election coverage interviews.
It's not OK for any elected public official to refuse to answer questions from the press on behalf of the public. Let's hope his skin gets a little thicker. Let's hope he learns the difference between news department reporters doing their professional jobs and an opinion writer, like me, doing mine.