Top 10 Stories of 2010



1. Right Makes Might

Sure, it was well known in advance that this would be a conservative year on the national stage. Fox News ranters were raising the faithful to arms, and the president could only stand aside looking befuddled by it all. But the strange passions of the Tea Party surely couldn't find purchase at the local level, could they? Not here on America's bleeding edge. Right?

Not quite. For the first time in years, nearly every consequential office up for grabs this year ended up in the conservative win column. Virginia Bass and Ryan Sundberg, both candidates supported heavily by the conservative establishment, won seats on the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. In the city of Eureka -- Humboldt County's largest city, and its only heterogeneous one -- candidates supported by the same establishment ran the table, taking three City Council races, the mayorship and a big win with a ballot measure offering support to Rob Arkley's proposed Marina Center development. (All told, only District Attorney Paul Gallegos bucked the tide.)

The elections leave the conservatives with a clear majority in Eureka, and a more ambiguous controlling interest in the county. They'll still have to win swing votes on the Board of Supes, and -- who knows? -- maybe Sundberg's votes, especially, won't always be to their liking. But there'll be elections in the conservative First and Second districts in two years' time, and perhaps the center-left incumbents Jimmy Smith and Clif Clendenen, respectively, will be looking over their shoulders. All told, we're looking at at least four years of conservative ascendancy in the region's most important policy-making bodies.

They're in the driver's seat, and they're looking to take this baby for a spin. Where to? That's kind of an open question at the moment. Without exception, the winning candidates' platforms were maddeningly vague; they consisted, nearly exclusively, of pro-job platitudes. In Eureka, the Marina Center is pretty much out of the City Council's hands. At the county, the general plan update -- the document that will guide development in the unincorporated areas over the next couple of decades -- will obviously be job one. But it's doubtful that the right has the votes to get everything it might dream of.

The aims of the backlash are murky, and the path to achieving them even murkier. Meanwhile, the most visible aspect of this mini-revolution, currently, isn't to be found in the election office's precinct reports. Rather, it's emergence of a Tea Partyish, Goldwateresque cadre of shock troops rarin' to raise hell at local government meetings, agitating for God-knows-what. Recently it has attempted to filibuster the nomination of Arcata-area Supervisor Mark Lovelace to fill the vanquished Bonnie Neely's seat on the Coastal Commission, throwing around crazed threats and outrageous epithets like Hanukkah gelt. If they keep up steam, we're in for quite a time.

-- Hank Sims

2. Legalization Goes Mainstream

Yes, Prop. 19 failed, but 2010 was the year that legal marijuana went from laughable to inevitable. Some critics of the "Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010" objected to its vague language, saying it would only serve to enrich its progenitor, Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, or worse, the corporations of Big Tobacco. Others no doubt used this argument as an excuse to justify voting their own self-interest -- namely, keeping pot illegal to keep prices inflated so they could keep livin' the kush life. (Humboldt County ballot results mirrored the state's, with roughly 54.5 percent voting no, while production-heavy SoHum went lopsided against it.)

But regardless of opinions on the nuts and bolts of the thing, Prop. 19 qualified for the ballot, it had a well-run campaign and right up until Election Day it looked like it could pass. The result? People took it seriously. Politicians were asked about it by journalists with straight faces. Some of ’em even endorsed it. The level of public debate was elevated, and the topic migrated from if weed should be legalized to when and how.

Last year Arcata got dubbed "Pot City, U.S.A.," thanks to a cautionary A&E news story. This year media attention grew like a weed, with everyone from CNN to the New York Times to a feature film documentarian eyeballing the Emerald Triangle. No ballot measure in the country got as much attention as Prop. 19, and there's a growing sense that we've reached a tipping point -- not just in California but in several other states including Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Whenever possible, candidates avoided the topic on the campaign trail; with young voters mostly in favor, politicians see which way the smoke is blowing. Meanwhile, and with relatively little fanfare, Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that makes possession of less than an ounce a mere infraction, punishable by a small fine. Afterward he uttered words that would have been unthinkable from a state governor just a few years ago: "No one cares if you smoke a joint or not," he told Jay Leno. (BTW, the feds still might.)

The weed itself may still be grown indoors, but the issue is out in the open.

-- Ryan Burns

3. The Earthquake

It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon, the dead of winter, just nine days into the New Year. In a few seconds, the world turned upside down. The first waves were limpid and slow, doing nothing worse than setting the windows a-rattle. But these were followed quickly by a series of heavy, brutal jolts, as we all rode our billions of tons of tectonic plate to a slightly new location. The Jan. 9 earthquake came up at 6.5 on the Richter, but most agreed that it felt much, much worse.

After everything stopped moving, perhaps the biggest shock: We appeared to have escaped relatively whole. A couple of Eureka houses were knocked off their foundations, and it looked like the Second Street brick behemoth that once housed Lazio's and the Old Town Bar & Grill would have to come down. Bricks warped and sagged from one of its exterior walls, which quickly became the symbol of the quake. Everyone mourned, and then, a couple of weeks later, when local developer Kurt Kramer stepped in to say he would save the place, they cheered. Construction crews have been at work on the building all year.

Despite the surprising lack of permanent structural loss, the quake managed to do about $43 million in damage, all told -- rattled chimneys, swayed timbers, supermarket goods dashed to the ground. Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency, then came to town to take a little tour. No one had been seriously injured in the quake, so Schwarzenegger's mood matched the feeling in the air: a light, even somewhat giddy sense of triumph at having met the enemy on the field of battle, and having faced it down.

This time. Just three days after our own skirmish with forces underground, a 7.0 quake killed a quarter of a million people in Haiti. We looked offshore to the massive Cascadia Subduction Zone -- primed, our seismologists tell us, for a release of energy unimaginable to anyone alive here today -- and knew that our turn was coming. Just not this year.

-- Hank Sims

4. Skilled Healthcare Settlement

Even those who were closely watching the class action lawsuit against Skilled Healthcare Group, one of the nation's largest nursing home chains, did a double-take in July when, after a trial that stretched for more than 100 days, a Humboldt County jury rendered its verdict. What was shocking wasn't the verdict itself -- the jury found that between 2003 and 2009 Skilled Healthcare criminally under-staffed 22 of its senior housing facilities in California, including five in the county -- but rather the eye-popping size of the damages. It went for max, awarding nearly $619 million for health code violations and another $58 million for false advertising. It was the largest jury award in the U.S. this year, and it immediately sent Skilled Healthcare's stock into a nosedive; shares fell 76 percent in a single day, to just $1.52.

Market analysts speculated that the verdict might force Skilled Healthcare into bankruptcy, an outcome that wouldn't help the plaintiffs. These were the victims at the heart of the case, a class of some 32,000 patients (or their surviving family members). At issue was whether society can trust nursing homes to care for our loved ones, and the matter obviously struck a chord with the jury. After the trial, jury foreman Bob Hart told the Times-Standard that they wanted to send a message to such facilities, a message that would "reverberate throughout the country."

In August, Skilled Healthcare's lawyers filed a motion for a mistrial. They alleged that a juror failed to disclose that she once worked for the county coroner's office and had handled at least one corpse that came from a Skilled Healthcare facility. This juror later came to know the daughter of the deceased, they claimed -- and the daughter happened to be a plaintiff. Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Bruce Watson rejected the motion for lack of evidence, and he issued a permanent injunction ordering Skilled Healthcare to abide by the minimum staffing levels mandated by California law.

The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office announced a settlement in September. At $62.8 million it represented just a fraction the jury's original award, especially considering that only $26 million of that is likely to go to the class in the case (with the majority of the remainder going toward lawyer fees). But thanks to the injunction, Skilled Healthcare was ordered to allow a third-party to monitor each of the 22 facilities implicated in the suit for up to two years, at an estimated cost of almost $13 million. Message received.

-- Ryan Burns

5. MLPA Unity

At first, back in 2009, many North Coasters dug in their heels and said, "No way, we don't need your stinkin' MLPA," while a few others said, "Heck yeah, it's about time!" Soon enough the resisters realized they had no choice: The Marine Life Protection Act, and its initiative to create a new system of marine habitat reserves, had reached our shore at long last, having worked its way north, region by region. There was no evading it. It was law.

And so then everyone tore each other to shreds, right?

Not exactly.

Under the MLPA, the state must establish a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) to preserve and protect portions of state waters representing the whole gamut of marine life habitats. Some MPAs would completely forbid fishing, others would allow varying degrees of it and other activities. Local fishermen feared they'd lose some of their prime rockfishing areas -- as had happened in some other regions -- between Point Arena and the border with Oregon. Some local tribes worried they'd be cut off from traditional gathering areas -- as had happened to a tribe in the Mendocino area. And some local scientists said there simply wasn't enough information on local marine habitats yet to lock into place such a reserve system -- and they got busy trying to correct that. The resisters noted, most profoundly, that the North Coast was different from all of those other, way more congested California coastal waters: Our waters were not overfished because we had fewer boats and collectors and, besides, the weather was so damned awful so much of the time who could get out into it anyway? And there were plenty of fishing restrictions already in place, they said.

Local environmentalists, more open to the MLPA and noting that it covered habitats, not just fish species, urged everyone to come together -- and they did. And after hundreds of hours of meetings and workshops between February and August of this year, they accomplished a first for the MLPA process: A single unified proposal for where these MPAs should go in our region. Whereas other regions' stakeholders had submitted several proposals for the state decision-makers to haggle over, our North Coast fishermen, tribes, environmentalists, divers, seaweed harvesters and other stakeholders had actually fashioned one proposal everyone felt they could live with. Pretty danged landmark.

But they're still in choppy waters. The unified proposal narrowly evaded being altered recently by a task force charged with vetting it. And there's some question as to whether the state Fish and Game Commission, in charge of the whole shebang, will approve of the unified proposal, as it might not meet the mandates of the MLPA. Big decisions lie ahead.

-- Heidi Walters

6. Samoa Pulp Mill, 1965-2010

Come all ye faithful anti-pulpmillers now, come ye and spit on this old, tottering corpse whose once-air-tainting tower -- smelly middle finger to us! -- still reaches pathetically to the sky. Remember your rashes and your bellyaches of yore, before Surfriders gallantly rode in to demand a less-toxic process. Remember how, even after that, still an industrial ickiness remained, and you fought it. And, oh, recall ye how, on certain windy days, a creep of odorous fog -- though not as thick as when there were two pulp mills on the north spit -- wafted over our mall and seeped into the nostrils and psyches of some of our brethren.

No, no, that ain't it. Come all ye sorrowful, ye faithful believers in the power of woodchips and a hearty, life-long wage, come ye to praise this too-long-malingering valiant, some 45 years enduring (more or less) -- and nearly sprung alive again this past year by Bob Simpson. We wanted green tissue paper! Or, even, the chlorine-free pulp again! Alas, no money. Now she's dead and shuttered and laid open to cannibals. Lights out. Lay a wreath beneath the shining white tower -- not a rude finger, no, but a beckoning thumbs up: Here there be jobs! Were jobs. Two-hundred and fifteen of them, at last count on the day the mill tentatively closed in 2008.

Good riddance, noisome beast of a bygone age!

Goodbye, stout bearer of jobs and the "true" Humboldt!

What a victory!

What a blow!

And there she goes.

-- Heidi Walters

7. Murder in Kneeland

On the morning of Aug. 26, Fernando Lopez emerged from the woods onto the Cal Fire helicopter base in Kneeland, bleeding from a gunshot wound in his face and another in his back. He'd spent the previous 15 hours hiding from the man who allegedly shot him -- his employer, 28-year-old Mikal Wilde of Eureka. Wilde had hired Lopez and two other men to tend his 1,500-plant marijuana garden, offering them $10,000 apiece for three months' work, according to one of the men. A week before the shooting, Wilde reportedly told his workers that he could no longer afford to supply their food or irrigate the crop with a water truck -- they'd have to fend for themselves and water the plants by hand.

According to the Times-Standard, two of the workers declined the new terms of employment, asking instead to be paid for their work to date so they could leave. On August 25, the two made their way to the Kneeland Airport, where they called someone to ask for a ride. But Wilde apparently wasn't content to let them go. When he found out that the two men had left his property he grew enraged, drove off in his pickup truck and returned shortly thereafter with a revolver, according to a third worker who was hiding in a nearby travel trailer. Wilde fired six bullets at the two men, who promptly fled into the woods; 20 minutes later, the man in the trailer heard three more shots.

This third worker also escaped into the woods, and both he and the injured Lopez separately spent the night evading Wilde as he circled area roads in his truck, shining a floodlight into the darkness, according to a statement. Despite his gunshot wounds, Lopez managed to walk several miles to the helicopter base. He was airlifted to a Redding hospital and treated for his injuries. In the aftermath of the shooting, a SWAT team searched the property and found the body of Mario Roberto Juarez-Madrid of Santa Rosa, Guatemala. Wilde was arrested during a traffic stop and eventually charged with murder, attempted murder, cultivation of marijuana and possession of marijuana for sale.

It later emerged in court documents that the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office had been investigating Wilde for more than a month prior to the shooting. In fact deputies had searched his Greenwood Heights home that very morning, unaware that Wilde's marijuana operation had already ended in murder.

-- Ryan Burns

8. Pastor Cardelli's Fall From Grace

The allegations against 49-year-old pastor Dino Cardelli were shocking. His September arrest stemmed from charges of recurring sexual abuse of a girl under the age of 14 who was living in his custody. The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office had reportedly been contacted after the girl told staff at her school that she and Cardelli had been having an ongoing sexual relationship. He pleaded not guilty and submitted his resignation as pastor from jail.

The following month, the picture of abuse expanded. Following interviews with some of the many children -- mostly adopted -- living in Cardelli's custody, three charges were added alleging lewd and lascivious acts with a second victim, another girl under age 14. Furthermore, two of the children interviewed reportedly told authorities that they'd regularly seen Cardelli hitting two of his mentally handicapped wards with a wooden stick.

These alleged abuses were especially difficult to fathom because of Cardelli's position in the community. As the senior pastor and founder of Calvary Church in Arcata he projected piety and humble authority in his weekly sermons, which were regularly broadcast on public access television. Yet there had been signs that something in the family was deeply wrong. Less than six months before Cardelli's arrest, his wife Nancy committed suicide, fatally overdosing on over-the-counter pills. A friend of Mrs. Cardelli's said that Nancy had been tormented by suspicions of her husband's behavior and had even pleaded with him to stop the abuse.

Cardelli pleaded not guilty to all the charges and was released on $250,000 bail. He's been ordered to avoid contact with the alleged victims as he awaits trial. Meanwhile, those who trusted Cardelli as a paragon of the spiritual are left to grapple with the allegations of his corporeal sins.

-- Ryan Burns

9. Grovies Rising

Being a monumental election year, there was perhaps less energy devoted to political activism than usual -- at least from the left. But the fight to prevent Caltrans from realigning Highway 101 through Richardson Grove proved something of an exception. Grove activists took the fight to the enemy all year long, garnering fairly continuous out-of-town media coverage and a resolution of support from the Bay Area town of Albany.

The narrative promulgated by the grove activists is a powerful one. It goes something like this: Corporate America want to "blow a hole" through Richardson Grove State Park to facilitate the construction of big box retail stores in Humboldt County. In doing so, they risk the lives of a few publicly owned old-growth redwood trees. But Caltrans lackeys press ahead regardless, unconcerned about either consequence. You can quibble with the specifics of this narrative, and plenty have, including this paper (see Cristina Bauss' two-part exploration of the issue -- "Roads and Redwoods," April 8 & 15). But it pretty much presses all buttons.

Grove activists are currently hoping, against long odds, for a negative ruling from state water regulators. Barring that, construction is scheduled to begin early next year. Direct action seems likely.

-- Hank Sims

10. Eureka Inn Reopens

As the strains of a "holiday lounge" ukulele number sashayed about the Tudor-walled lobby of the half-opened Eureka Inn, tickling some of the lingering shut-door shadows, families and couples trickled in to gaze at the huge, ornament-jammed Christmas tree in the corner. It was the first tree in many, many years at the 88-year-old Inn, which new owner Libo Zhu reopened in May after its nearly six-year deathlike slumber; the tree seemed a gaily lit portal to a fondly remembered past and a hopeful future.

Four old-timers, two men and two women, wandered in, checked out the pretty tree and then stopped to reminisce in front of one of the glass cases variously displaying old-time photos, vintage hats and costumes, and other memorabilia. The younger woman recalled that she and her husband -- she drew him close to her side as she spoke -- honeymooned here in 1972.

"My fondest memory is of the Christmas tree," said the older woman. "Each year they had a different theme. I don't remember the first one, but the second one was birds, and they had bird cages."

One of the men groused that all he knew was that the snooties used to come here, the moneyed crowd with their High Teas and their country club confabs. "I thought the people were nice," defended the older woman. The younger woman said she really liked those High Teas -- she and her friends would have High Tea and then take pictures. The teas were held at Christmastime, which started with a bang after Thanksgiving with the lighting of the tree. Everybody would come, and choral groups would sing. And from Thanksgiving through New Year's, this grand, green-and-white, block-consuming monolith at 7th and F was the place you dragged your visiting relatives to to show off. And later in the year the jazz festival would fill up one of the big halls.

The Inn's got a ways to go before it can match its glory days. But already, in the six months since reopening earlier this year -- and despite the still-slumbering lounge, cafe and half the hotel rooms -- it has gained a little more verve and polish. Cross fingers it revives completely. Welcome back, Eureka Inn.

-- Heidi Walters

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