County Saw Political Swing in 2012

From the 1.2.13 issue

By Daniel Mintz

Press Reporter


2012 was a year of political change. The county saw a swing to the conservative side of the political spectrum and many of the year’s most attention-getting events were driven by it.

There was more afoot than politics, however. The county’s economy and particularly its budget entered a state of recovery and its environment also seemed to, as strong salmon runs were seen in major river systems. But the environment demonstrably suffered as well and a culprit was fingered.

A Growing Problem

For the county’s marijuana industry, 2012 was a year of bad P.R.

Reports of excessive energy use, watershed tainting, reckless land clearing and grow-related crime were staples of local news. Aerial views of hillsides, displayed at Board of Supervisors meetings and news websites, revealed the scale of an increasingly conspicuous problem. Throughout the year, the impacts of marijuana cultivation overshadowed the industry’s economic and medical contributions. Sensing increased concern, government officials held hearings like the one chaired by Assemblymember Wes Chesbro last February, where scientists from environmental agencies described the capitalistic excesses of growers who carelessly clear forested areas on both private and public property.

“Brazen” was the word Chesbro used to describe what he was seeing in a series of photos.

He authored new legislation that gives police agencies more power to investigate grow-related activities on industrial timberlands and public forests. Responsible growers have supported the idea of cracking down on bad actors but indoor cultivation is common and it, too, has been fingered as a cause of trouble.

Grumbling about neighborhood impacts aside, indoor growing has been implicated as a contributor to global warming and an abuser of low-income discount energy programs. The year saw the emergence of a new law that puts a cap on electricity and gas usage under the California Alternate Rates for Energy program, which allows power price discounts for income-eligible customers.

But the more the consequences of irresponsible marijuana production are complained about, the more the argument for legalizing the substance gains credibility.

Humboldt County officials have repeatedly described federal law as an obstacle to establishing a regulated cultivation scenario.

The feds have gotten some bad P.R. themselves by forcing the closure of two well-respected medical marijuana dispensaries, prompting local officials to demand a re-focusing of their attention to the problematic hillside grows.

While California struggles with how to handle marijuana issues, attention is now focused on Colorado and Washington, where cannabis was deemed legal for recreational use in the November elections.

GPU: Endless 

There was little media coverage of the Planning Commission’s careful and lengthy review of the General Plan Update and coverage was equally minimal when the Board of Supervisors took it on – until September, when something drastic seemed to be afoot.

Internet news sites were abuzz with tales of a General Plan coup from the new board majority. It was the “End of the General Plan Update” according to various pundits but actually something much less eventful was happening.

There was a lot of talk from some supervisors about stripping down the update’s contents but little of it translated into actual change. Indecision is what’s marked the board’s handling of the update and since last spring, when it was first handed off, minimal progress has been made.

Change might be more likely in the upcoming year, when Estelle Fennell will replace Clif Clendenen on the board, giving the majority an additional voice. But so far the board’s handling of the update has been clumsy and non-productive. Proposals to change the way it’s done have triggered unresolved debates and the board majority that’s dissatisfied with the plan’s contents haven’t yet found a way to chart a new course.

In November, there was a new twist – the various groups that have been pushing their interests decided to form a stakeholders group that would review GPU sections. Supervisors seem content to hand the weighty work off to the group, but it has yet to finish its review of the update’s Circulation Element and is unsure if it will be able to do more, as retracing the Planning Commission’s review of the GPU is the bureaucratic equivalent of hard labor.

A newly devised completion schedule pushes the process out to next May. But GPU schedules don’t have much meaning anymore — an original schedule set the finish of the board’s process at last summer.

Planning Overhaul

Long a magnet for complaints and controversy, the county’s former Department of Community Development Services was targeted for restructuring last spring. Its director, Kirk Girard was heavily criticized by a variety of permit-seekers and developers, and two supervisors, Ryan Sundberg and Virginia Bass, supported his job termination.

A compromise of sorts was forged – supervisors agreed to split the department into a Planning and Building Division and an Economic Development and Natural Resources Division, with Girard in charge of the latter.

The move took Girard out of the planning realm, accomplishing what firing him would have without actually doing it. The split presented a financial dilemma, however, as the reformed department would have two directors.

The restructure was itself restructured the next month, when Girard submitted his resignation after finding a planning management job in Santa Clara County. A new plan emerged – Economic Development was merged with the County Administrative Office and Natural Resources was folded into the Department of Public Works.

The next task was to hire someone to head the stand-alone Planning and Building Department. Senior Planner Martha Spencer was appointed as an interim director and was a candidate for the permanent position. But with the subsequent resignation of Supervisor Jimmy Smith due to illness, there was a new board majority made up of Sundberg, Bass and Rex Bohn, who had won the June election in Smith’s district.

Spencer was considered to be less than responsive by the development-related supporters of the new majority’s campaigns and the transformation of the planning department was finally clinched with the majority’s hiring of Kevin Hamblin, who was the longtime head of planning for Eureka.

Although Hamblin’s approach is low-key, Eureka has a reputation for snubbing the directives of the state’s Coastal Commission and environmentalists view his hiring as a nod to development interests.

Whether that’s true or not, Hamblin and Girard are perceived as being a study in contrast and the former Department of Community Development Services’ fate is the outcome of a political turnaround at the county’s highest level of decision-making.

The New Order 

Three supervisor seats were open in the June election, with only two candidates each competing for them. The results established a new voting majority on the Board of Supervisors.

Estelle Fennel defeated incumbent Second District Supervisor Clif Clendenen and Rex Bohn easily gained victory in the First District election. Supervisor Mark Lovelace won his re-election handily but the Third District includes Arcata and is a mainstay slot for liberal interests.

With Fennell and Bohn joining the board, a majority is formed along with supervisors Ryan Sundberg and Virginia Bass. All got financial support from similar sources and Fennell, though strongly supported in left-leaning Southern Humboldt, was at odds with environmentalists as director of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights.

That leaves Lovelace as the lone defender of conservation measures like new restrictions on residential development of timberlands.

Bohn is a straight talker and has clearly stated that he prioritizes property rights and removal of bureaucratic barriers to development. It’s a bit harder to pin Fennell into one camp or another, if not for her helming of a group seen as being pro-development and gaining campaign money from those involved in local industry.

A sign of things to come may have been suggested with Fennell’s careful choice of public comment participation as she waited to be seated. When Sundberg, Bass and Bohn controversially pushed for changes to the General Plan Update process, Fennell praised them for their “courage and strength” and one could almost see liberals wincing.

Fennell is the supervisor to watch in 2013, as her knowledge of local politics, public safety issues and land use planning is considerable. Her background includes high-profile journalism, key participation in organizing the Reggae on the River and Reggae Rising music festivals and Southern Humboldt’s back to the land movement, so her thinking has been shaped by broad influences.

Smith’s Fight 

Supervisor Jimmy Smith’s hard work, centrist approach and kind personality firmly established him as the First District’s definitive leader. It’s hard to imagine a challenger that could have beat him in the June election but Smith didn’t run and he didn’t finish his third term.

In a letter to the board last June, Smith said he’s resigning “with great reluctance” due to the re-emergence of cancer. “I need to concentrate on my recovery,” he continued. “My doctors have provided clear direction and I’m sure I will prevail in this battle.”

His work and accomplishments were celebrated by his many friends and colleagues at his last Board of Supervisors meeting on July 24.

Congressman Mike Thompson appeared via a videolink and highlighted Smith’s work on the clean-up of the South Spit and the Salt River restoration and flood control project. Thompson added that “efforts to restore and protect our rivers – the Eel, Klamath and Trinity – would have gone nowhere without you.”

He said Smith should “take particular pride in saving the Aleutian geese, once a threatened species,” and told him that “timber, conservation, farming, ranching, fishing and people have had a champion in you.”

A variety of representatives from public service agencies had similar things to say but perhaps the most revealing aspect of Smith’s statesmanship was provided by his wife, Jacque. She said her husband’s fight against cancer began in the early 1990s with an initial diagnosis of lymphoma.

Once a commercial fisherman and wildlife researcher, Smith embarked on “a mission to serve” after being given 50/50 odds of survival by his doctors. He was elected as a Harbor District commissioner before becoming supervisor and Jacque Smith said that “I seriously don’t think Jimmy would have changed the course of his life so drastically, from commercial fisherman to politician, if it hadn’t been for that disease.”

Smith’s treatments have been effective and his appearance was a highlight of an appreciation ceremony for outgoing Supervisor Clif Clendenen at a supervisors meeting last month.

Back In the Black 

In 2012 the county finally emerged from a multi-year era of anemic budgets and across-the-board departmental cuts.

There was some suspense over the state’s budget but with the voter approval of the Proposition 30 ballot measure in November, funding for state programs realigned to the county is constitutionally guaranteed and massive “trigger cuts” that could have impacted local budgets were averted with tax increases.

Favorable budget trends were reported to the Board of Supervisors in early November. The budget’s general fund had a positive balance of $5.7 million at the end of the 2011 to 2012 fiscal year, which is a milestone in recent years.

Programs and staffing in the county’s Health and Human Services Department have been among the budget casualties in the recent past but the department’s balance was reported to be $13 million in the black.

The numbers on the county’s economy were mixed. By November, retail sales were down 5.5 percent from July but were stable overall compared to last year. County unemployment was 10.9 percent in July, an increase of 1.5 percent from last year. But supervisors were told by staff that unemployment claims were below where they were five years ago.

The county’s former glory industry continued to lose its luster. Lumber manufacturing dropped 2.3 percent from July and was down 12.3 percent compared to last year


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