Residents Only: Eureka's First True Ward Election



When Eureka voters were preparing two years ago to vote on whether to change course on how they selected council members, they were meet with divergent views on what such a shift would mean to the city.

Those opposed to the ultimately successful Measure P predicted that a "true ward" system would severely curtail who has a say in electing city leaders, clearing a path for declining representation — with council members beholden only to their designated spheres of influence.

"As a result, the city would have five councilmembers answerable to the constituents of their respective wards and not to the citizens of the city as a whole," the November of 2016 ballot argument against the measure read. "This may lead to more infighting and be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their ward."

Proponents held the opposite view, maintaining that having council members chosen by residents of each individual ward would open the door to a more diverse field of candidates better in tune with community needs who might otherwise have been unable to compete.

"In a true ward system, you vote for a representative for your neighborhood, you decide if you like what that person stands for, and if they will represent you well," the pro Measure P statement read, adding that "regular working people who understand many of Eureka's issues due to their first-hand experience can be shut out" by the cost of running in a citywide contest.

Now, as the dust settles on the city's first ward-based election since the Prohibition era, it appears both sides were right to some extent: There were more candidates than any Eureka election in more than a decade — including two who promised not to raise or spend more than $2,000 — but money otherwise continued to flow into the races.

And, while it was inevitable that each of the victors would be elected by fewer votes this time around, the number was dramatically lower in Ward 1 than even detractors of the true ward system had predicted.

(The Humboldt County Elections Office is still in the process of counting an unprecedented number of ballots that came in on and after Election Day, with countywide turnout on the path to hitting close to 70 percent of registered voters.)

Moving forward, candidates and residents are likely to undergo a learning curve as they adjust to the new world order of ward-only Eureka council races, says Ryan Emenaker, a College of the Redwoods political science professor with a background in elections and electoral systems.

As one example, he points to the fact that candidates' signs could be seen all over the city, not just in the wards where the individuals were running.

"It seems like there was a lot of crossover, that people have not really changed their behavior based on the system yet," Emenaker says, adding some voters were likely surprised to find they could only vote for their ward's seat rather than the previous practice of a citywide election. "It's probably a shock to a lot of the people who went to the ballot box."

He says a shift in the interaction between constituents and their elected officials can be an offshoot of moving to ward-only but residents tend to "have a closer connection with the person that represents their ward" and conversely are less inclined to reach out other council members anyway.

"That may not happen right away in Eureka because people are so used to electing all the council members," Emenaker says, adding that expectation is a two-way street for those who sit at the dais, with most still entrenched in a citywide approach to their position.

Before Measure P passed in 2016, Eureka used a combination of the most common methods — at-large and by-district — with a citywide vote for the five council members but each seat representing a specific geographical area, where the candidates were required to reside.

That year, council members had placed the decision of switching up the system before voters after then City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson brought the proposal forward, citing possible legal concerns under the California Voter Rights Act.

At the time, Day-Wilson pointed to the fact that some California cities had been sued over claims that the at-large system disenfranchises minority voters, with many of the lawsuits settling out of court — in some cases for hefty amounts — and moving to district-based elections.

While Eureka is one of the smallest cities in the state to take on the approach, Emenaker says it's not an unusual way for council members or their equivalents to be elected in other parts of the country.

In the end, Measure P was easily approved with 57.6 percent of the vote and the city charter was amended to have candidates elected in a ward-only system — starting now.

The mayoral post continues to be elected in a citywide vote.

This November's election saw more Eureka candidates than any in recent memory — with the closest contender happening back in 2006, the last time all of the same wards saw contested races, when 11 candidates appeared on ballot.

The next heftiest ballot was in 2010 — when nine hopefuls threw their hats in the ring, although Lance Madsen ran unopposed for the Ward 5 seat that year.

As a side note, Ron Kuhnel — who ran for Ward 3 in both 2006 and 2010 — is the only candidate whose election bid outcome would have changed had the ward-only approached been in place when he was narrowly defeated by Jeff Leonard and again four years later by Mike Newman, according to a Journal survey of precinct returns.

But the extended field of 12 hopefuls in Eureka this year — so far — doesn't appear to have been particularly engaging to the electorate, even when presented with clear choices for maintaining the status quo or changing the composition of the council.

The three council races saw just under 4,000 votes cast by the 8,581 registered voters in those wards, according to a Nov. 16 elections office update, the latest results available before the Journal went to press.

In the citywide race for mayor — which Susan Seaman won over fellow challengers Councilmember Heidi Messner and Michelle Constantine — 6,654 constituents had their say. That's less than half of Eureka's 14,720 registered voters, according to the most recent numbers.

By comparison, 8,731 votes were cast in the three-way mayor's race back in 2006 and 8,723 were cast when another trio of candidates ran for the post in 2010. When the seat was last on the ballot, Frank Jager garnered 5,608 votes even while running unopposed.

Ward 1 — despite four hopefuls and some large campaign chests — saw the least number of ballots cast in the city, with Leslie Castellano receiving 375 of 765 votes counted as of press time — far less than the dire prediction made by Measure P foes of a mere 900 people being able to select the winner. (Consider this: The most recent results have Castellano winning a council seat with the support of just 2.5 percent of the city's registered voters.)

Her nearest challenger Anthony Mantova received 188 votes, while Hailey Lamb was next with 116 votes and Caroline Brooks rounded out the pack at 88 votes.

Meanwhile, Councilmember Natalie Arroyo, now in Ward 3, garnered 955 votes to return for another term and Bergel, now in Ward 5, also won reelection with 792 votes.

Arroyo's opponents, John Fullerton and Jeannie Breslin, received 590 and 328 votes, respectively, while Bergel's challenger Joe Bonino received 489.

Emenaker says there could be a few reasons why Ward 1 fell short in comparison at the ballot box, including the fact that there might simply be fewer registered voters who reside there — which is the case.

The wards' boundaries, last done in 1976, were redrawn last year to evenly distribute the city's population and each now range from 5,428 to 5,445 residents.

An analysis done by city staff as part of the process looked at a number of demographics of each possible scenario, including age, but not levels of voter registration.

Of the five wards, Ward 1 has one of the highest population of renters — 73 percent compared to 53 percent in Ward 2, 79 percent in Ward 3, 64 percent in Ward 4 and 51 percent in Ward 5 — and has the lowest "proportion of people over the age of 60" at 11 percent, according the city's breakdown.

And while Ward 1 also has one of largest "relative proportion of 'working age' individuals (ages 20 to 60)," along with Ward 3, it also has the fewest registered voters — 2,073, according to a breakdown by the elections office.

In contrast, Ward 2 has 2,711 registered voters, Ward 3 has 3,739, Ward 4 has 3,428 and Ward 5 has 2,769.

Emenaker says the question of whether to take voter registration numbers into consideration when designating election districts is often a matter of contention.

Regardless of how many eligible voters were up for grabs, money was by no means off the table, although Measure P proponents had touted the ward-only approach as one way to level financial playing field in local elections.

That being said, the size of a campaign chest didn't always equate to a win this time around.

Castellano, for example, raised nearly $15,000 through Oct. 20, the latest campaign disclosure statement available, of which about $13,500 was in cash contributions and $333 was a loan. Mantova, meanwhile, brought in more than twice that amount at just under $29,500.

That's almost exactly the amount of the money that was at play in 2010 when Councilmember Marian Brady successfully ran against then incumbent Larry Glass in Ward 1 before running unopposed four years later — if fact, she also took in nearly $30,000 compared to Glass' almost $15,00 but, unlike Mantova, won the seat.

It was a similar story in Ward 3 and Ward 5 — where money, again, was not the deciding factor.

Despite having nearly $26,000, of which just over $11,000 was his personal money, Fullerton fell second to Arroyo, who raised $13,905, including a $100 loan from her campaign treasurer.

Breslin, meanwhile, had about $10,000 for her Ward 3 race, of which cash contributions comprised just over $9,000, including a $1,000 loan from her campaign treasurer.

For the same race back in 2014, Bergel (who lives in Ward 5 under the new boundaries) took the seat after from incumbent Mike Newman after amassing about $13,000 to his $21,400.

Now in Ward 5, Bergel accumulated $8,229 in cash for her reelection bid while Bonino brought in $12,711, including $880 he loaned to his campaign.

Only two candidates in Eureka — Lamb and Brooks in Ward 1 — limited their funds to below the $2,000 disclosure level.

Emenaker says that while, "overall, people with the most money tend to win," he also notes the question long asked by political scientists: Does money chase the winner or does money create the winner?

He notes that the new smaller scale of the ward-only approach does make personal interactions with potential constituents more attainable, noting that is the only tried and true method for winning an election.

"Money doesn't matter as much, that's the theoretical benefit," Emenaker says. "I think, over time, we will see that more and more in Eureka. I think people will start to realize that over time and candidates will get trained that, 'Oh, the person who goes door to door wins."

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor and a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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