Humboldt's 4th District is the county's most compact in stature. Wrapping around much of Eureka, up to the Indianola Cutoff and across the bay to Samoa and Fairhaven, the district encompasses Humboldt County's largest urban area, as well as the county seat.
While the district shares similar challenges with the rest of the county, some of the issues and strengths of the county are particularly focused in the area.
The 4th is home to Humboldt Bay's largest ports and marinas, industrial and commercial zones for businesses as well as residential neighborhoods, homelessness, indoor marijuana grows and empty storefronts.
The Journal recently sat down with the two supervisorial candidates vying to represent the 13,000 registered voters in that portion of the county: incumbent Virginia Bass, who was elected in 2010 and served on the Eureka City Council for eight years before that; and Chris Kerrigan, who himself served on the Eureka council for eight years before being termed out in 2008.
Bass and Kerrigan spoke about several issues facing the county — and the 4th District in particular. Here's an overview of the candidates' plans.
Boom or bust
Humboldt County's economy — and what can be done to improve it — seems to be an eternal discussion. While the country continues to recover from the great recession, the board of supervisors recently approved a document outlining economic goals and target industries to promote.
The most recent edition of the Humboldt County Economic Index lists a 7.2 percent unemployment rate, half a percent above the national rate. And the county's median household income, according to 2012 census data, hung around $41,000, well below the state's median of $61,000. Meanwhile, a walk through Old Town shows empty, unused storefronts.
The 4th District offers many opportunities for economic growth: much of the bay, including waters conducive to aquaculture and recreation, the county's largest shopping centers and industrial sites.
So how can the county government improve our economy?
Bass said it's still going to be some time before Humboldt County's employment numbers are back to 2008 levels. She said the economic strategy adopted by the board this year is a step forward, identifying high-growth industries that would lead to good paying jobs.
That's all part of what she called a "new normal."
"Diversification is important because we can't rely on one type of industry or another," she said.
The Samoa Peninsula, she said, is an "opportunity for this community to realize some of the best economic growth that we've seen in a long time." She said the county needs to support the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District in its cleanup of the Samoa Pulp Mill and focus on cleaning up other brownfields, as well as pre-permitting and pre-zoning lands to attract industries. She's particularly excited about a local businessman's desire to build a wood pellet manufacturing plant, utilizing what would otherwise be a waste product from the timber industry. It's just the kind of business the county needs, she said. "They're local. They care about our community. They're not here to take advantage of us."
Finally, Bass said, the county should create a bay-wide land inventory, identifying properties that are zoned for general industrial use and ones that are zoned for coastal-dependent industrial use. Rather than expecting new businesses to research and seek out zoning changes appropriate for their industries, Bass said the county can come up with a long-range look at the peninsula, identify needs and work with the California Coastal Commission to fulfill them.
Kerrigan said a healthy economy will come from switching from a resource extraction economy to a resource management economy. "Growing up I think it was folklore that you had to balance the economy and the environment," he said. That means encouraging businesses that make the most of our natural resources — specialty forest, fish and food products, for example — maximizing their value before selling them to markets outside of the county, rather than shipping raw products to be processed elsewhere.
The county can encourage this by using the Headwaters Fund and the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission to invest in businesses and the infrastructure that startups rely on, he said. By pre-permitting land for business and keeping zoning and planning consistent, Kerrigan said, the county can attract investors to the area.
Kerrigan said quality of life is crucial to a healthy economy — citing trails, pedestrian and bicycle safety, infill in neighborhoods and public safety as attractions for businesses who want happy employees, as well as two other key demographics: young families and retiring baby boomers. Another thing that appeals to investors and people seeking to move or stay here and that could improve Humboldt's ability to expand its market? Additional air service. "As a younger person, I think it's extremely important to me, as someone that's chosen to live here, to have those options and that connectivity to the rest of the state and other markets. I think, in terms of attracting entrepreneurs, it's going to be vital, as well."
Finding a home
Mental health, drug abuse and the economy are among the most visible contributors to the county's homeless problem. The Department of Health and Human Services provides some relief for the down and out, as do private organizations that offer shelter and some treatment programs.
While reliable statistics are difficult to come by given the reclusive nature of the county's homeless population, the Humboldt Housing and Homeless Coalition's 2013 Point in Time Count found 1,579 people living without a home on the night of Jan. 28, 2013. Of those, more than 600 reported staying in Eureka.
Can the county do more to help these people off the streets?
Bass said she started a community group — consisting of elected officials, Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills, business owners, service workers and others — to address Eureka's homeless issues last year. It began as a venting process but she and others have learned a lot about homelessness.
"How do we start making little visible changes?" she asked. "Every effort I've seen in regard to making things better ... seems to try to solve the problem. And it's not going to be something we solve. What we can do is mitigate and make improvements."
She said learning about the community's homeless — a tactic touted by Mills — is the first step. She said assisting people in connecting with families and employment is crucial, as well as education of the community at large. "You've got what we started to call vagrants, the folks that are the visible ones in the community who may not even be homeless," she said. "We are a very giving, tolerant community. ... Perhaps the best thing we can do is instead of handing someone money, give them other avenues to get the appropriate help."
The county should also focus on affordable housing, Bass said, not just for young couples and families, but single-occupancy residencies for low-income individuals. That means preserving mobile home parks and converting hotels to single-unit rooms — "Opportunities for people who don't need a very big living space, but they will benefit with having a roof over their head and being able to take care of their needs."
Kerrigan got choked up as he repeated an anecdote from a Eureka school teacher who told him that one quarter of her students lived out of cars. Pointing out of his campaign office window, he said many homeless — particularly families — stay out of sight. "Families come into city parking lots, for example, at dusk and then leave early in the morning at dawn. And their kids do their homework in the back of their cars. And they're some of the nicest, hardest working families you could meet."
Kerrigan said the county needs to focus on services to provide connections with families, transitional housing and medical care, focusing on people who want to get out of a homeless situation. "Then it becomes a lot easier for public safety to enforce community behavioral standards and ordinances, rather than our police department feeling overwhelmed by the amount of homelessness."
Raising the minimum wage — something Kerrigan said he's supported for Eureka — would incentivize work. And he said he's spoken with Mills about looking into designated camping areas for the homeless.
How 'bout that General Plan?
Humboldt County's General Plan Update has been in the works for 14 years, and while the board of supervisors is scheduled to finish its review this year, some say it should have been finished years ago. The board's decision to return a 2012 draft general plan to the planning commission last year raised controversy, as have some of that group's proposed changes. None of the county's political factions are going to completely agree on a document that's going to guide how the county grows and develops for the next 20 years — but what can (and should) the board do to finish the GPU?
Bass said everyone is ready to see the GPU completed. "I appreciate all the passion that's in this community," she said. "That's something that makes us very special. But it also makes certain projects difficult. It's not as easy as it looks."
If the board could focus singularly on the GPU, the supervisors could probably finish it sooner, Bass said, but that's not realistic. "Yes, the general plan is very important; it is but one of our chores to deal with. ... But there's continually policy being made, and neighborhoods that need help."
Kerrigan's frustrated with the current board's review of the general plan.
"[The supervisors] need to insert back the goal of the countywide trail system," he said. "They need to insert back the incentives to develop within the cities and where we have infrastructure, which will benefit in particular the 4th District, which is an area where we have the infrastructure, where we need the development."
Humboldt County's most famous conundrum is in a period of flux. With two bills offering marijuana legalization for the state and general public support of decriminalizing recreational marijuana, it's all but certain things are going to change in the next few years. But indoor and outdoor grows still vex local governments, creating environmental problems, impacting public safety and casting a shadow on the actual economic effect of our underground economy. What does the county need to do about marijuana?
Bass, speaking as though marijuana legalization is inevitable, said there's a balance to meet between local control and state oversight.
"We would benefit from having regulatory structure that's coming down from the state," she said. "We need to retain local control, however, because we are the ones that know our communities best."
She said large, destructive, commercial grows are on the county's radar.
"[Growing] is so bad and so out of control, trying to get a handle on it feels very frustrating. But the visibility has been raised to such a level that we're getting some help. But what we really need is money for the enforcement."
She said the unpermitted building and environmental destruction associated with for-profit marijuana grows is a problem that needs help from the federal government to solve. "I would like to see a concerted effort to help local communities deal with the problem without putting people's lives at risk. You're not going to send someone from the planning department in with a clipboard into a situation like that. It's not safe."
Kerrigan said he'd like to see the county, cities and smaller municipalities come together to develop a comprehensive utility tax for excessive electricity users. He also said the state needs to take leadership in developing regulations around legalization.
He said environmental problems associated with outdoor marijuana growing — water diversion, low flows and chemicals — are going to be made worse by land policies that the current board of supervisors is pursuing: a loosening of rules that will allow more subdivision and development on rural land. "And that's where a lion's share of [marijuana growing] activity is taking place, is in areas that have been subdivided."
We need money
The county projected a $3.6 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year, with staff recommending $2 million in cuts. What — if anything — can be done? Bass said the current board inherited the legacy of the great recession, adding that it's difficult for small governments like Humboldt County to keep up with state and federally mandated programs when the funding for those programs dries up. "We have to be very mindful of spending," she said. "We've had great cooperation from our union groups."
With the county's current plan, the budget should be balanced again by the 2016-2017 fiscal year, she said, and "creativity" with other agencies — things like consolidating police and fire dispatch and sharing facilities — and ballot initiatives could ease the county's budget burdens. She added that she's asked state assembly and senate candidates to urge the state to give counties more funding.
Kerrigan said passing a general plan will reduce county spending on the process itself. "It will also help us move forward with an economic strategy that will increase local revenue," he said. "It's always going to be difficult for local communities to provide services. Because there's a tremendous amount of services and a small amount of dollars."
City of residence? Eureka.
Where did you grow up? Eureka (Myrtletown, Cutten and city of Eureka).
How long have you lived in Humboldt County? All 52 years.
Can you please provide a brief education history? Attended local schools (Lafayette, Zane, EHS). Graduated with honors with a degree in business administration from HSU.
Can you please provide a brief work history? Operated family owned business (OH's Townhouse) for over 30 years, employing hundreds of people during that time. I also worked for two years as a pharmaceutical sales representative. During the time that I was working full time I also served on the Eureka City Council and as Eureka mayor.
What is your current occupation? Humboldt County 4th District Supervisor.
What do you consider the three most important endorsements you have received to date in your campaign for county supervisor? My endorsements by the Humboldt Deputy Sheriff's Organization, Sheriff Mike Downey and the hundreds of residents who live in the 4th District come to mind.
Now, a few questions to give voters a taste of your personality:
You forgot to ask favorite color! Blue.
What is your favorite movie? The Lost World, because I got to watch it being filmed.
What is your favorite book? Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.
What magazine do you read most regularly? Rolling Stone.
If your campaign had a theme song, what would it be? Since "Eye of the Tiger" was taken last week I think the refrain from "Break my Stride" pretty much captures it.
Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride
Nobody's gonna slow me down, oh-no
I got to keep on movin'
Aint nothin' gonna break my stride
I'm running and I won't touch ground
Oh-no, I got to keep on movin
Who is your favorite fictional politician? Jefferson Smith, from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington fame.
Who is your favorite real-life politician? Our very own former Supervisor Jimmy Smith.
Dogs or cats? Always had a houseful of both.
What is your favorite hobby? Cooking
What would your superpower be and how would you use it? While it would be nice to be able to solve all the world's problems by one snap of the finger, the superpower I would like to possess would be the ability to bring people together and have them understand that the only way to make the world a better place is to find what we have in common and focus energies there. Change happens on step at a time and we can only move forward when working together.
City of residence? Eureka.
Where did you grow up? Eureka.
How long have you lived in Humboldt County? My entire life.
Can you please provide a brief education history? Attended local schools: Lafayette Elementary School, St. Bernard's High School; graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in political science.
Can you please provide a brief work history? Eureka City Council member; owner; campaign consultant; tennis teacher.
Current occupation? Paralegal.
What do you consider the three most important endorsements you have received to date in your campaign for county supervisor? Linda Atkins, Eureka City Councilmember; Mike Wilson, Harbor District Commissioner; Central Labor Council of Humboldt and Del Norte Counties.
Now, a few questions to give voters a taste of your personality:
What is your favorite movie? Tin Cup and Peaceful Warrior.
What is your favorite book? Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. I consider it a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of power.
What magazine do you read most regularly? The Atlantic.
If your campaign had a theme song, what would it be? Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop"
Who is your favorite fictional politician? Jed Bartlett, The West Wing.
Who is your favorite real-life politician? Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.
Dogs or cats? Tough one, but if I have to choose... cats.
What is your favorite hobby? I love to play tennis, and talk politics, of course!
What would your superpower be, and how would you use it? The ability to fly. No more airport delays!
Humboldt County, by the numbers
10.6—Square miles (land only)
19.79—Square miles (land plus the part of the bay within the district)
1,551.65—Square miles, (land, includes rivers)
3,582.25—Square miles (including land, rivers and basins, but not Humboldt Bay)
Sources: U.S. Census (2010), Humboldt County Planning Department GIS and (for the attachments) Humboldt County Elections Office
Source: Humboldt County Elections Office