By most measures, 2015 was a rough year on the North Coast. We saw soaring numbers of traffic fatalities, suicides, drownings and homicides, including a pair of officer-involved shootings. Several years of drought left our hills primed for a summer of inland fires and dried creeks, putting added pressure on dwindling salmon runs. And the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements — heralded just a handful of years ago as a prime example of grass-roots organizing and bipartisan compromise — imploded in the face of a Congress that failed to pass legislation to enact them. And the county's entrenched homeless population remains, despite numerous governmental efforts, which often seemed to leave officials frustrated and running in proverbial circles.
But there was some progress, too: The forward-looking Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation Commission — which has arguably been the county's most ambitious governing body of late — got a stamp of approval from voters; a pair of local police agencies made the jump to outfit officers with body-worn cameras that are hoped to usher in a new era of evidence gathering and accountability; the state and the county, both long reticent to craft laws to regulate a rapidly growing marijuana industry, took major steps toward bringing it under the umbrella of government oversight; and the county received $20 million in state funding to build a new transitional jail facility that will allow for better mental health and rehabilitation services.
Reflecting back on all the good and bad of 2015, the Journal selected this year's top stories based on their immediate and lasting impacts to life on the North Coast. New Year's is a time of renewal and reflection, so we hope this helps you, our reader, take stock of the year that's passed and contemplate what will make 2016 a more prosperous and peaceful one in Humboldt County.
A Deadly Year
We lost many. Twelve drownings, 20 drug and alcohol related deaths, 41 suicides, 15 homicides and 28 road deaths all cumulated to take our friends, neighbors and relatives. Several of these mortality factors reached new highs in 2015. And most, if not all, of these deaths were preventable. So, is there a unifying cause behind these sad statistics?
Well, there's one obvious culprit. At least 13 of the 15 homicide victims either tested positive for drugs or were at the scene of a drug-related crime. Chief Deputy Coroner Ernie Stewart blames drugs and alcohol for our county's high suicide rate, saying they exacerbate existing mental health issues. Nineteen of the road deaths were also drug and alcohol related. Drugs were also found in the system of 28 people who died accidental deaths in 2015.
Humboldt County has one of the highest infection rates of Hepatitis C in the state, and three times the state average of drug-induced deaths. Some hope is on the horizon — the county is discussing jumping aboard a recent MediCal expansion that will cover more holistic treatment for addicts. A Suboxone program for opiate addicts offered through Open Door has been lauded as "one of the best in the state." But the county's mental health program continues to face scrutiny due to an understaffed, reportedly dysfunctional working environment and many who work in treatment say that the multi-generational influence of addiction has led to younger and younger addicts. The New Year may well ring in with new statistics, and more lives lost to the bottle, the needle and the gun.
Cops on Camera
As a nation, our collective relationship with our law enforcement officers continued to evolve in 2015. Fueled in a large part by a series of high-profile officer-involved killings toward the end of 2014, police homicides continued to come under increased scrutiny, with protests engulfing cities across the country at various points in the year. Alternately, the nation watched with bated breath as officers performed heroically at the scenes of a number of the mass shootings that continue to plague our country.
These themes played out locally as well. A pair of officer-involved shootings this year — the shootings of 47-year-old Richard Keith Kelly and 20-year-old Killian Shane O'Quinn — coupled with a two more that occurred toward the end of 2014, kept a dark spotlight on Humboldters' relationships with the officers tasked with protecting them, as well as the underlying cyclical problems of drug abuse and poverty that seem to run beneath these incidents. Meanwhile, arrests and convictions in several high-profile homicides highlighted officers' work to bring some of our most violent residents to justice.
Amid this backdrop, a pair of local agencies took large strides toward better evidence gathering and, potentially, increased accountability. Police departments in Rio Dell and Eureka both purchased body-worn cameras for all their officers and introduced policies that will require officers to record just about every encounter they have on the job. The new technology will certainly enhance officers' ability to capture witness statements and document crime scenes. And many hope the added layer of documentation will lead everyone — cops and citizens alike — to comport themselves a bit better. But what will come of the footage these cameras capture — and whether the public at large will have access to it — remains murky. Historically, departments have wielded near complete discretion over whether similar videos are released to the public.
As this issue goes to press, the Journal is in the midst of a protracted legal battle with the city of Eureka over whether video footage from the dash camera of an officer's patrol car should be released to the public. The video in question shows officers arresting a juvenile suspect in 2012 — an arrest that led to assault allegations against one of the involved officers. In May, a Humboldt County Superior Court judge ordered the video released, finding that access was in the public's interest. But the city appealed that ruling, arguing the video should be considered a part of the officer's confidential police officer personnel file because the incident it captures led to a citizen complaint against the officer. The appeal is pending, and may be resolved in 2016.
Taming the Weed
In the world of marijuana, 2015 was California's "Oh Shit" year. Bobbing in the wake of Washington (state and D.C.), Oregon, Alaska and Colorado's surge toward sanity, Golden State lawmakers decided they should probably ... maybe ... finally ... do something about the medical marijuana beast voters created nearly 20 years ago.
As the year draws to a close, Humboldt County lawmakers are scrambling to make sense of a loose framework of state medical marijuana laws signed by the governor in September. The package of bills, co-authored by North Coast lawmakers, establishes a new Bureau of Medical Marijuana, which will create business licenses and work with other agencies to regulate the state's multi-billion dollar medical marijuana industry.
In typical Sacramento fashion, the state legislature sat on its hands for two decades, then decided that local jurisdictions had less than six months to create land use laws to govern medical marijuana operations, or defer to yet-to-be-determined state rules. That left Humboldt County to craft an ordinance, run it by the planning commission and board of supervisors, absorb public input (during the holiday season) and adopt regulations by March 1. The board of supervisors will discuss the proposed law for the first time at its first meeting in 2016.
The state's rush, of course, comes from anticipation of a 2016 ballot measure that could legalize recreational marijuana in California. Already a handful of those are being crafted, with at least one expected to gain support from Silicon Valley tech money and political bigwigs like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (whose Garberville visit in May was Humboldt's celebrity event of the year — sorry Kirsten, ♥).
You can't recap 2015 in marijuana without mentioning California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, the political action committee that launched Humboldt County's land ordinance movement and then withered less than a year later. The secretive group, prone to grandiosity, admirably sought to bring growers into compliance with environmental laws and other local codes. It held numerous meetings, raised thousands of dollars and drafted an ordinance that it ceremoniously handed over as a blueprint to the board of supervisors, though the county draft that followed barely resembled CCVH's version.
Climate in Conflict
With a state snow pack that's creeping toward normal levels and a December that drenched the North Coast, it's easy to forget that drought talk dominated much of 2015. Several dry years had left the state, and much of Humboldt, parched. That contributed to a busy inland fire season for Humboldt that left swathes of the Hoopa Valley shrouded in smoke for weeks on end.
Scientists and fishermen alike pointed to poor river and stream flows, as well as unusual El Niño tidal patterns, as the likely culprits for a poor salmon season and dwindling fish counts. And — whether you blame El Niño, climate change or both — warmer than usual water temperatures off the coast caused enormous algal blooms that left Dungeness crab and clam fisheries testing positive for unsafe levels of domoic acid, which is potentially toxic to humans and currently threatens a total cancellation of the crabbing season.
With the rain pouring and Ruth Lake full, it's easy to imagine climate change and drought receding from the public consciousness for a while. But both were dominant themes in 2015, and promise to be mainstays on this list for the foreseeable future.
Two visions of just how to shepherd Humboldt Bay, our most important natural resource, clashed this year. It was close, but in the end, a progressive, grounded-in-reality view of the bay won voters' approval.
A trio of businesspeople announced a concerted challenge to the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District's three open seats in August. Larry Doss would eventually run unopposed, when incumbent Aaron Newman declined to seek re-election. Nick Angeloff and Susan Rotwein would go on to battle incumbents Greg Dale and Pat Higgins, respectively, saying that the current district's board was holding back Humboldt Bay's potential for economic growth and focusing too much on tourism, trails, oyster farms and conservation.
Angeloff touted his vision of a major shipping port, Rotwein tugged heartstrings with her portrayal of overlooked fishermen and all three challengers inexplicably bashed the harbor district's acquisition of the Samoa Pulp Mill.
Late last year, the district finished hauling away millions of gallons of toxic liquors housed in failing tanks. Meanwhile, it's been improving the industrial park and seeking tenants, scoring contracts with pellet manufacturers and oyster farmers. This effort apparently rankled the board's challengers — who said it was unwise to take a loan (essentially a gift) from the Environmental Protection Agency to facilitate the cleanup. That may have been Rotwein and Angeloff's undoing. Private cleanup of the mill site was a pipe dream, and the abandoned liquors were a looming environmental, economic and cultural disaster.
Higgins and Dale won re-election, and the district will continue its focus on balancing tourism, fishing, small business and trade.
Klamath Pacts Come Down, Dams Remain
Through history's lens, 2015 could be recorded as the year the historic Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements were unceremoniously executed by Congress. Hailed in 2010 — when the landmark agreements were signed by the governors of California and Oregon, as well as dozens of stakeholders — the agreements were a bipartisan, grass-roots compromise that sought to squelch decades of bitterly entrenched squabbles over water and the environment that extended from the river's headwaters to its mouth.
The agreements were the product of years of hard-fought negotiations that left most a bit battered and bruised, and no one claimed them to be perfect (the Hoopa Valley Tribe, for instance, was involved in the negotiations but refused to sign on to the final product). And, as years passed with Congress failing to provide the legislation needed to enact the agreements, discord among the parties seemed to grow. In September of this year, the Yurok Tribe announced it was pulling out of the agreements, saying its bargained-for benefits were now unachievable. Then, as the year drew to a close, Congress again missed its deadline to enact legislation as the Republican-controlled House failed to introduce the needed bill.
The parties to the agreement have now begun the process of terminating the agreements. A host of local entities will continue to work toward the removal of the four PacifiCorp dams that dot the upper Klamath, but now with lawyers and regulators instead of compromise. Meanwhile, farmers in the upper Klamath will face the water uncertainty that will surely put them at odds with tribes and environmentalists. Seemingly squashed just a handful of years ago through peoples' simple willingness to sit, talk, listen and sacrifice, the Klamath water wars now seem destined to continue far into the future.
The Shifting Face of Public Safety
The year began with the implementation of California's Proposition 47, the voter-passed initiative that reduced a host of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors and promised to redirect state funds spent on incarceration to local governments. "It is, basically, a crap storm out there that these guys are facing," lamented Humboldt County First District Supervisor Rex Bohn in January. "I think we're going to be sitting here a year from now going, 'Jesus, what happened?' And it's going to be terrible."
About a year later, there are probably differing views on whether Bohn's vision became a reality. What's clear, however, is that Proposition 47 has caused a large shift in local public safety and local police can no longer simply arrest their way to lower property and drug crime rates, if they ever really could in the first place. Meanwhile, Humboldt welcomed a new district attorney, Maggie Fleming, in 2015. The office has now seen an influx of new attorneys, and successfully prosecuted a pair of high-profile murder cases.
But perhaps the biggest news on the public safety front — literally and figuratively — won't be seen for a handful of years. The county announced in November that it has received $20 million in state funding to build a new transitional housing facility onto the jail that will be designed to increase inmate mental health services and vocational counseling, and to streamline people's transition from life in custody to living successfully — and lawfully — on the outside. The new facility won't be built and operational for several years, but officials are hopeful it may help close the revolving jail door and turn repeat offenders into productive members of our community.
If you're one of the several thousand men, women and children who live rough in the streets or woods of Humboldt County, you might well have whiplash from the constantly-shifting narrative created by policy and public opinion. Garberville and Redway now teem with seasonal marijuana workers who have set up to stay on the riverbar. Locals who blame these recent arrivals for aggressive panhandling, litter and visible drug use have reacted by carrying tasers, patrolling the streets and protesting the installation of a public restroom on the Garberville town square. In Fortuna, a well-established homeless camp set up between the riverbar and the railroad tracks was cleared out by the County Sheriff's Department in early spring.
Nowhere has the debate over what to do with our homeless neighbors been more contentious, however, than in the area behind the Bayshore Mall known to some as "The Devil's Playground," and to others as the PalCo Marsh, where 100-odd people currently still live, even as winter rains have brought floodwater to the lips of their tents. Over the last year, the city has announced the search for a site of a temporary sanctuary camp, abandoned said search, sent notices that the campers must leave within 10 days, reversed this decision and began holding service fairs once a month, proposed several stop-gap measures that would pave the way for more charges against campers, while weathering lively city council meetings that included shouting, singing, protests and sign waving from both sides of the debate. As the year drew to a close and the literal and figurative storm raged on, the city had mandated campers into a "condensed" space just north of the mall and announced that they had found a potential space for a temporary sanctioned camp. The Mobile Intervention and Stabilization Team (MIST), a joint effort between EPD and DHHS, had referred more than 100 chronically homeless people to housing. A report on housing availability from the consulting firm Focus Strategies — which cost the city $80,000 — has been delayed for presentation to the city council and Board of Supervisors by three months. Meanwhile, according to the Journal's count, there are three homeless people for every one emergency shelter bed.
So long, farewell, Auf wiedersehen, good night.
This might end up being appropriate for the Top 10 stories of 2016, but we felt it was worth noting now: There's a vacuum forming at the top of Humboldt County's government.
Three of the county's top officials, County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes, Health and Human Services Director Phil Crandall and Planning and Building Director Kevin Hamblin, are all leaving their positions by the end of January.
That leaves a pretty substantial void. Crandall has worked for the county more than 30 years and, despite long-term, substantial problems in his department, carries a ton of institutional knowledge. (The county's appointed replacement for Crandall, Kristin Brinks, abruptly backed out of the job just two weeks after accepting it, sending the county back on the hunt.)
Meanwhile, Hamblin is slated to retire at the end of 2015, leaving Supervising Long-Range Planner Rob Wall to serve as interim director until the position is filled. The now resolved shaded parcels kerfuffle and the department's involvement in the general plan update have made it a focal point for the county's fundamental development/property rights vs. enviro/smart growth struggle.
Smith-Hanes has largely avoided contention in his six years as the head of the county's unelected staff. He's taken a job in Kansas. Now's a good time to submit your resumés.
Caring for our Most Vulnerable
The Journal reported in July that five of the county's six skilled nursing facilities had ceased to accept patients, forcing people to place their frail and elderly loved ones in facilities hundreds of miles away. The facilities, which are all owned by the same parent company, were apparently in a stand-off with the county's Medi-Cal provider, Partnership Health Plan of California, over reimbursement rates. The Journal found no evidence that the facilities were too full to accept new patients, as some families were told. While new patients were apparently admitted once a resolution had been reached with Partnership, as of December reports were still trickling in from patients and caregivers who have had difficulty being placed in their care facility of choice.
The Humboldt-Del Norte Medical Society, meanwhile, has called for a grand jury investigation into the county's mental health branch, which has been under increased scrutiny since the reported exodus of most of its doctors. In March, with only one full-time psychiatrist slated to be on duty for the entire branch, the county approved outsourced staffing of the branch to an outside recruiting firm at a cost of about $3.2 million.
In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the so-called Right-to-Die bill, paving the way for terminally ill patients to end their own lives with the help of physicians beginning in 2016. Local doctor Michael Fratkin said the passing of the bill "reflects an electrified social conversation that is transforming healthcare."
Fratkin, meanwhile, launched a pilot program to offer palliative care to the dying. The landmark project, which has been extended another six months, sees a team offer palliative care to patients. Another Fratkin program uses telemedicine and partner clinics to educate physicians and communities on how to better care for those preparing to pass on.
Bonus: The Great Escape
On Nov. 19, when we heard that Masala the red panda, just weeks shy of shipping out of her parents' place to a zoo in Tennessee, busted out of the Sequoia Park Zoo like Cool Hand Luke, Humboldt went on high alert. By the following day, national media picked up the story, while locals picked up flashlights to search for the striped scamp. Word went out on social media, news and road signs to keep our eyes peeled for everybody's favorite Asian anchor baby. Finally on Nov. 21, a tip led Zoo Manager Gretchen Ziegler and a posse of zoo staff to Masala in a backyard tree.
While red pandas are, Ziegler says, "like squirrels" and tough to contain (zoos in Washington DC and Norway have lost and found pandas), zookeepers were scratching their heads over how Masala escaped her up-to-panda-code enclosure.
Ziegler says they have a pretty good theory now. In one corner, zookeepers found telltale prints on the slick wall over the dry moat that keeps the pandas penned. A stick and extra silt may have raised the moat bed enough for Masala — who'd been casing the exits — to get a running start and panda parkour her way out like a French action star. The zoo fixed the problem, but Masala will stay in her own place until she leaves in January. Meanwhile, her twin sister, Cini, seems content at home snuggling with mom Stella Luna. Fingers crossed.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill