Last week Eureka kazillionaire Rob Arkley called up, as he does periodically when he wants to give a tip of the hat or a wag of the finger. "Nice fluff piece on the NEC!" he said with a laugh, referring to last week's cover story about the new Northcoast Environmental Center. "When am I going to get that kind of treatment?"
This came back to me Tuesday morning, as news broke that his lawsuit against the county had suffered a setback. A press release from county government sent late Monday afternoon noted that Judge J. Michael Brown had tossed the "Humboldt Sunshine" suit out before it went to trial. An attached copy of the courtroom minutes noted that the suit, which alleges that the county is not meeting its state mandate to provide for affordable housing, could be amended and re-filed.
You might need a scorecard. Humboldt Sunshine is one of the many special-purpose entities under the Arkley umbrella. It appears to have been formed solely to prosecute this suit. And it must be said that if there's one thing that Arkley has in common with his foes across the aisle, it's a seemingly irresistible urge to manufacture a brand-new "organization" every time another issue pops up. Arkley arch-foe Richard Salzman has three or four, each with its own mailing list. Sometimes one will receive e-mail calls-to-action from "Redwood Progressive" and "Richard's List" and "The Alliance for Ethical Business" within a space of minutes. You're left to imagine Salzman at home, logging in and out of his various accounts. It's not clear what purpose this serves.
So with Humboldt Sunshine. It follows on the heels of the still-extant but apparently somewhat moribund Humboldt Economic Land Plan (HELP), which had a similar critique (though HELP did have a proven membership in excess of one). In short, both HELP and Humboldt Sunshine allege: That the county has proven itself hostile to developers. That its staff is incompetent. That too much land is being preserved for agriculture and open space, putting the squeeze on the housing market. That as a result, housing prices have skyrocketed out of the reach of most Humboldt County families.
This, in a nutshell, is the allegation at the heart of the Humboldt Sunshine lawsuit. The thing that makes it a lawsuit, rather than a mere gripe, is the fact that the state of California mandates all local jurisdictions - counties and cities - to make some sort of arrangement for affordable housing. The jurisdictions must determine the housing needs of people within their borders, and must make some effort to see that those needs are met. These arrangements, laid down in a document called a "housing element," must be approved by state authorities. The Humboldt Sunshine lawsuit takes aim at Humboldt County's housing element, which covers everything in the county's unincorporated areas, as well as the elected officials and public servants who had a hand in drafting it.
As a layperson who reads a lot of lawsuits, the thing that struck me about the Humboldt Sunshine lawsuit when I first read it was how little of it there seemed to be. It said: Humboldt County is mandated to do something about affordable housing, yet housing affordability is at an all-time low. Therefore the county is in breach of its mandate.
It's always a bit frustrating talking to HELP people on this point. They stick to a basic, rigid supply-and-demand argument. If there is more land available for housing, they say, the price of housing goes down. If there is less land, prices go up. Economics 101. Yes, you counter, but we're not trading coconuts for palm fronds on some remote desert island. The Humboldt County housing market is part of an immensely complicated national and international economy, affected by all sorts of factors - for example, the desirability of real estate as an investment vehicle as opposed to the stock market. Someone's buying those unaffordable houses. And if Humboldt County officials are to blame for rising home prices here, why have home prices boomed out of control all across the country? I've tried to get answers to this question, and they've never been satisfying.
If there was any meat to allegations contained in the Humboldt Sunshine suit (again, speaking solely as a layman) it was that the county's inventory of land available for new development was flawed - land that appeared to be available for development was actually undevelopable, for various reasons. This seemed a serious charge. Well, but that's the section of the suit that Judge Brown largely threw out on Monday. It turns out that Humboldt County's housing element was approved before the state legislature had passed certain changes to its regulations on land inventory. The Sunshine suit could not hold the county to the newer standard, Judge Brown ruled.
What does the judge's action mean? On Tuesday, County Counsel Ralph Faust was feeling chuffed. The lawsuit could be refiled, he acknowledged, but Brown had eviscerated it. "That was really the heart of their case," he said. "Their whole campaign was based on this." He noted again that the California Department of Housing and Community Development had signed off on the county's plan a couple of times, even after HELP asked them to re-review it.
Meanwhile, Humboldt Sunshine attorney John Fairbrook(of the Sacramento-based firm of Trainor Fairbrook, which specializes in this kind of law) was unbowed. The stricken part of the lawsuit was but one of many, he said: "I'm confident that the county still fails to comply to the law, and I'm confident that it has failed miserably to meet the housing needs of the county." He added that the suit would certainly be rewritten and refiled within the next 10 days, as is required by the court.
So the Humboldt Sunshine suit isn't going to go away with a whimper. Neither is Arkley, despite some confusing indications a few years ago that he and his family might be moving their legal place of residence to Louisiana for tax purposes. And this brings me to the thing I wanted to say. You don't have to shed a tear for him or anything, but in point of fact Rob Arkley is largely misunderstood. Part of that's his own fault and part of that is the fault of his opponents, who caricature him as he caricatures them. Each side delights in pinning hooves and fangs to the other's portrait.
But the general public has no real interest in deluding itself. So if you haven't met the guy, and if you're at all interested in this "Arkley" character that everybody seems to be whispering about, let me give you an unvarnished take, in the spirit of our story on the NEC last week. This is from someone who's had his run-ins with the fellow in the past - not all of them pleasant, but none of them fatal.
Despite what you may have heard, this is a guy who has little interest in making money in Humboldt County. He makes his money elsewhere. In Humboldt County, he spends, and gives, much more than he makes. So when he meddles around with Humboldt County politics, he does it for the same reason that other people do -- he thinks that things would be better for most people if government ran the way he thinks it should. The Sunshine lawsuit isn't about him and his friends getting their money-grubbing hands on a big pile of development dough. As it stands, he probably makes more money in a month right now than he could ever make as a Humboldt County developer. He sued the county because he honestly believes that it was the right thing to do. He probably does think that it would help poor people find homes; he certainly believes that it would jump-start the economy and bring more business to the place. The same goes for the Home Depot he wants to build -- he believes in it. In my experience, his ideology is pretty hardcore laissez-faire. He has a tendency to believe that capital always knows best, and that the Democratic Party is nearly universally evil.
But the problem isn't with his ideology, either. It's in the fact that he doesn't play well with others. If you don't agree with him, he tends to think that the world would be better off if you were squashed out like a bug - and he's willing to devote resources to the effort. He has a horror of bureaucrats, of the mindset that wants to bring every party - no matter how foolish - to the table. It could be said that he has a horror of democracy, or at least of the democratic spirit's excesses.
He's trying to do good, according to his own lights. It's just that if you cross him, you should be prepared for a considerable amount of headache. People tire of that.