Where have all the city council candidates gone?



When the filing period to run for three open seats on the Blue Lake City Council closed in August, only one candidate had stepped forward.

It was, Blue Lake City Clerk April Sousa says, an unusual position for the bucolic hamlet. While uncontested races there are not infrequent, not having enough candidates is something new.

Rather than follow an appointment path with so many seats at stake, the council opted to move forward with the election and put out the call for write-in candidates.

"This is the first time anyone can remember this happening in Blue Lake," Sousa says.

Up and down the North Coast, seven seats — or more than one-third of those up for election — will be filled in unchallenged races, with just 20 candidates appearing on the ballot for 17 open positions in Humboldt County's seven cities this November.

College of the Redwoods political science professor Ryan Emenaker says civic participation, in general, has been declining in the United States over recent decades. While smaller communities like Humboldt County have been more immune to the trend, that is changing, he says.

Fewer people are joining organizations like the Rotary Club and that is trickling down to participation with local political committees, traditionally on the frontlines for recruiting potential candidates.

That, coupled with a growing public mistrust of government and an increasingly caustic political atmosphere, results in fewer folks who are willing to serve.

"I think a lot of those national trends are starting to catch up with us now," Emenaker says.

The job of a councilmember is not an easy one and it's also a major commitment, which can be difficult in a small-town setting where a simple trip to the grocery store likely means running into constituents. This can cut both ways.

"I think, in the right environment, that actually encourages more participation, and in other environments it encourages less," Enemaker says.

Eureka Councilmember Melinda Ciarabellini referenced some of these challenges in her letter announcing she was not seeking another term, noting it is "fashionable for some to denigrate public service" and how she was "unpleasantly reminded, all too often, of the politics that come with the territory."

She also urges "the passionate, the energetic, the creative, the visionary, the caring to push back against this unproductive narrative" by running for office.

Serving on a council comes with long hours in exchange for a small stipend and usually health benefits, as well as increasing scrutiny in the social media age amid a backdrop of general political malaise.

"When I talk to people about running and being in office, the economic issues are bigger," says Arcata Mayor Paul Pitino, who is up for reelection in November, adding that it's hard for many people to dedicate 20 to 30 hours a week to something they aren't well compensated for.

In Arcata, for instance, councilmembers receive $587 a month, compared to $500 in Eureka, $300 in Fortuna and $50 in Blue Lake. That, Pitino says, results in a smaller pool of people who can dedicate their time to office.

Enemaker agrees, saying the demanding schedule of meetings, preparation time, serving on additional boards and community engagements, combined with lack of corresponding compensation, limits who can realistically run.

"It's a real difficult task for someone who has a full-time job, so we're sort of whittling down who is able to participate," he says.

The emergence of social media, blogs and anonymous comments on news sites has also added a new layer of exposure.

"That becomes a lot tougher thing," Enemaker says. "It doesn't feel like serving community members, it fills like you are stepping in to be criticized."

Each North Coast city has its own dynamics when it comes to elections. This is especially true in Trinidad, where the picturesque village faces a point of diminishing returns in fielding candidates.

Incumbent Jack West and Humboldt State University Director of Admissions Steve Ladwig are currently up for the two open seats there. Trinidad Councilmember Julie Fulkerson says many residents have already served terms in the town, which has an aging population of around 250 and sees a growing percentage of its real estate serving as vacation rentals or second homes. These can make finding people to run a challenge.

Fulkerson notes she's always keeping her eye out for possible recruits. "As soon as I meet someone new in town, especially young people, I try to engage them," she says.

Eureka, despite the nonpartisan nature of council seats, is known for its conservative versus progressive dais battles, which tend to result in pendulum swinging elections with the board majority continuously shifting from one side to the other.

Home to some of the county's most robust contests in the past, Eureka has seen several races go uncontested in recent years, including this one, as Pastor Heidi Messner is taking the 2nd Ward seat unopposed. (Eureka also has a contested race with local accountant John Fullerton and St. Joseph Hospital employee Austin Allison vying for the 4th Ward seat.)

Proponents of the city's Measure P, which seeks to have council members elected by residents of Eureka's individual wards rather than citywide, say ward-only races would bring more candidates forward.

Part of the overall issue, Enemaker notes, is the sheer number of elections and elected positions in the United States, noting that an estimated 1 in 300 people over the age of 18 hold public office in the nation. Taken down to the local level, Humboldt County has more than 30 school boards along with community services districts, the board of supervisors and seven city councils to fill.

"It requires a lot of people running for office," Enemaker says.

Like Eureka, Fortuna has seen a decline in candidates over the years.

Back in 2010, eight hopefuls ran for three open seats, followed by three candidates for two seats in 2012 and four candidates for three slots in 2014. This year, two candidates are running unopposed.

That lack of challengers was front and center earlier this month when the Fortuna council laid the groundwork for filling the remaining two years in the term of Linda Gardner, who died last month, with a sort of musical chairs approach.

The Fortuna council had two main choices: a special election or an appointment.

The plan set forth at the Oct. 3 meeting has current Councilmember Doug Strehl stepping down on Oct. 17 to be appointed to serve out Gardner's seat.

Strehl's remaining term — which runs through December — would then be filled by Dean Glaser, a former councilmember who joins business owner and incumbent Tami Trent as the sole candidates for two seats on Fortuna's November ballot.

Glaser, who would step into his four-year seat when Strehl's term ends, points to the city's recent financial difficulties — Fortuna began the fiscal year with a budget deficit — as one reason for the dearth of candidates, saying "no one wants to be sitting up on the dais and be the enemy."

Mayor Sue Long was blunt in her assessment of the situation, with the appointment of Gardner's successor slated to go for a council vote on Oct. 17: The time for residents interested in serving on the council to come forward passed with August's filing deadline. While the council opted to go the appointment route, the city is not taking applications.

"And, if anyone is offended by that, I apologize," Long stated at the Oct. 3 meeting, "but no one showed any interest whatsoever in being on the city council when you just had a great opportunity. So, there you have it."

But not every city is feeling the same pinch.

Arcata continues its tradition of having a varied pool for voters to choose from — although neither as big nor as eclectic as past years — with five candidates, including three incumbents, vying for three seats. In addition to Pitino, councilmembers Michael Winkler and Susan Ornelas are running along with local chef Daniel Murphy and Valerie Rose-Campbell, a playgroup facilitator for the city.

"I think Arcata is following the same trajectory as every other place, it's just a little more attractive to run in than other places," Pitino says, noting the influence of having Humboldt State University in town.

Ferndale, meanwhile, has a contested mayor's race — with consultant Don Hindley facing Steve Nunes, who is listed as retired. Incumbent Daniel Brown and educator Patrick O'Rourke are running unopposed for two open council seats.

Over in Rio Dell, three candidates are going after two open seats. Challengers Bryan K. Richter, a contractor, and Susan Strahan, a local business owner, are vying for a position on the council against incumbent Frank Wilson, an electrician.

Back in Blue Lake, three write-in candidates had completed all the necessary steps to run as of Oct. 10, according to Sousa.

Write-in candidates in any city need to meet residency and age requirements for holding public office, fill out nomination papers and submit 20 qualified signatures to their respective city halls by the Oct. 25 deadline.

The catch is that their names — as will be the case with Blue Lake hopefuls Barbara Ricca, Deborah Ann Jacobsen and Summer Daugherty — won't appear on the ballot.

Interested but not registered? There's still time. The registration deadline for the November election is Oct. 24.

Sousa and Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Kelly Sanders both emphasized the need for voters to fill in the bubble next to the write-in candidate line on their ballots in order for a write-in selection to count.

Sanders says candidates will be given credit for a write-in even when the spelling is a bit off "if we can determine the name," as "a reasonable facsimile" of a candidate's name counts under the election code.

The sole candidate to appear on the ballot for Blue Lake will be Adelene Jones, who's hardly a newcomer to the council, having served for 20 years — 1988 to 2008 — before being appointed in 2015 to finish the term of the late Lana Manzanita, who stepped down due to health reasons.

"There are just so many good things about the town, and I just want to serve the citizens," says Jones, a retired teacher who is a volunteer docent at the Blue Lake Museum.

Fulkerson expresses similar sentiments.

Small towns without enough candidates to run could ultimately face the difficult choice of disincorporation and folding into Humboldt County, she says, adding she constantly tells residents in Trinidad the job isn't as complex as they may believe.

"Everything is just the daily problem solving that we all do," Fulkerson says. "The difference is you are doing it for your community."

Editor's note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct the dates Adelene Jones served on the Blue Lake City Council.

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