Of course, it's not all about earth-shattering decisions like approving a Marina Center mall or cracking down on an Occupy encampment.
Most Eureka City Council decisions are ho-hummers. Picking a contractor to redo a water-sewer building's interior. Awarding a cable franchise. Buying city-planning software. Hardly divisive.
The office is non-partisan, but there's a marked philosophical divide on the council. Four of five council members lean right, especially on growth and development. Though incumbent Linda Atkins is seen as a holdover from the council's more progressive days, she votes in tandem with the rest of the council on most issues. No reason not to, she says.
Challenging Atkins, a Democrat, for the Ward 2 City Council seat are Floyd "Joe" Bonino, solidly Republican, and write-in candidate Charlie Bean, who projects an independent vibe.
In Eureka's Ward 4, Melinda Ciarabellini is running unopposed. So the Ward 2 race is the only game in town, democracy at work in Eureka. An epic battle of good, OK and not half-bad.
On a Sunday at Democratic headquarters in Eureka, Atkins signs cards to hang on voters' doors. She works alone, waiting for her battalion of volunteers. She's wearing a blue shirt, faded jeans and small, black "Atkins" campaign button.
She's knocked on 1,700 doors to date and plans to knock on 75 more in the next few hours.
"I wore out one pair of shoes," she says, grinning. "It's going to be a two-pair election."
Atkins ran for office four years ago because she wanted a better Eureka, a city with well-paying jobs and safer streets. A place where her two grandchildren might someday find jobs, thrive.
Atkins received nearly $11,000 in contributions between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, according to the election finance report she submitted Oct. 5. Donors included educators, retirees, former county supervisor Bonnie Neely ($470), the Central Labor Council of Humboldt Operating Engineers ($400) and Arcata Mayor Michael Winkler ($200).
Bonino started campaigning later and still received more than $21,000 from Aug. 1 through Sept. 30, with contributions from retirees, attorneys and others, including county Supervisor Rex Bohn. (Bonino, who has gotten a good laugh over rumors that he's re-using the baseball-shaped signs that helped Bohn win a supervisorial seat in June, says no, his circular plastic alligator board signs were printed new for his campaign.)
Bean says that so far he has received $800 in contributions and some free printing; the amount is low enough that he's not required to fill out a finance report.
Sometimes Atkins wonders why candidates spend so heavily to win a seat that pays so little, just $500 a month. She knows that money talks. She still thinks she can win.
"If people work together, in a small enough town, you can go door-to-door and reach people without spending a million dollars," she says.
In four years, Atkins has proposed revising arcane city codes into user-friendly rules for small businesses. She devised a plan to get federal matching funds to build the Fishermen's Terminal Building.
These days, she favors the purchase of a $5 million crane needed for Eureka to realize its potential as a port for short-sea shipping.
"We have a port dredged and ready to go," she says. "Short-sea shipping barges are the Greyhound buses of the sea."
It's rough fulfilling the lone liberal role -- but it's better than having all five council members "rubber-stamping" the same perspective, Atkins says.
"How can you make good decisions if you're only hearing one point of view?" she asks.
Though Bonino complains about Atkins' well-remembered opposition to waterfront development west of Old Town, the issue seems moot. Given her minority opinion on the council, Atkins couldn't have stopped the Marina Center project if she'd tried. As it turns out, she says she'd support a good plan.
"Everyone in town wants something to happen down there," she says. "We have so many empty store fronts, more by the day."
Waterfront mall status update?
"It's still a weedy mud hole," she says.
Ward 2 challenger Bonino agrees that Atkins can't be blamed for Marina Center development delays these days, though he holds her responsible for past resistance.
The project's lackluster status is a sign of troubled economic times.
"Recession knocked the financial immediacy out of the project," he says.
What might he do differently than Atkins?
"Anything I can do to help is better than not being enthusiastic," he says.
Opponents have mischaracterized the Marina Center, he says. As proposed, it's much more than a giant Home Depot on the historic waterfront. He compares the planned mall to The Grove, a 575,000-square-foot open-air mall southwest of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. (Frommer's lauds The Grove as a "Vegas-style retail complex.")
The Marina Center, as planned, would total 313,500 square feet on 43 acres. There'd be 54 apartments, 14,000 square feet for restaurants, 70,000 for "light industrial use," 12,500 for a museum, and a four-level parking structure. And space for, say, an anchor store. Like Home Depot.
The residential-commercial mix is key to the project's success.
"It turns the marina into a cool place to be during the day to work and a fun, hip place at night," Bonino says. "It magnetizes the city. Young people will come to hang out ... and to live in housing that isn't 105 years old."
Bonino has spent decades walking precincts for conservative candidates and for ballot initiatives including Prop 8, which called for defining marriage as a heterosexual union.
Now it's his turn to run for office.
Via phone during an afternoon coffee break, Bonino calls himself a "very nice guy." He bikes and hikes. He takes the bus frequently from Eureka to Arcata, where he's HSU's Joe B. Payroll.
Atkins annoyed him when she spoke to constituents who were occupying the Humboldt County Courthouse lawn last year. Atkins warned activists that police were planning to evict them. "That was a mistake," Bonino says.
He says voters need choices.
"If you don't have an election with two candidates, you have Russia," Bonino says.
The progressive-conservative divide in this council race was clearly visible in a recent debate.
When asked during a League of Women Voters debate last week about supporting Prop 30's tax increase for those making more than $250,000 annually, Bonino said no way.
Atkins said those making a quarter million a year or more could afford to pitch in a bit more for schools and road repairs.
Bean paused for a beat or two. "No, I wouldn't raise taxes," he said, finally, referencing what he perceives as mushy government spending.
Bean may be a fiscal conservative but he's solidly pro-choice, thinks it's fine if gay couples marry and believes that it's OK for the government to help people who need help.
Bean lives in a small wheelchair-accessible apartment near Cooper Gulch. Perched atop a high bookshelf is a photo of Bean's 7-year-old daughter. On another shelf -- her pet hamster "Hammie."
Bean grew up in Humboldt. When he returned here a few years ago, after six years teaching in China, he applied for two jobs a week. The Hoopa High graduate ended up frustrated and unemployed. Bean turned to volunteer government work. He's served on and chaired several committees from the Humboldt County In-Home Supportive Services Advisory Committee to the Humboldt County Grand Jury (2010-2011).
"I enjoy helping people, doing things to improve the community," he says.
And now people are helping him with many small campaign donations. He pages through photocopied checks.
"You know, when you grow up in a small town, you never really know if people like you much," he says. "Then they support you like this. I must have done something right."
Bean, one-time owner of Rick's Red Carpet Lounge (the building's now North Coast Roleplaying on Broadway), decided to run for office because local business owners often complain to him about lack of access to city decision-makers.
"They say, ‘Nobody ever asks us what we need,'" he says.
All three candidates agree on improving the safety of Eureka's streets, stepping up crime prevention and creating jobs by bringing in businesses that pay well.
To this, Bean adds it's important to keep a "good spirit" in these troubled economic times. He's got that one covered.
"I was a cheerleader in high school," he says. "The Hoopa High mascot -- a warrior."
Full disclosure: Deidre Pike, a registered Democrat, teaches at HSU, meaning her paycheck is in the capable hands of Joe Bonino. She told Charlie Bean that his membership in the fraternal order E Clampus Vitus was "crazy cool."