Mad River Union
ARCATA – When it comes to projects she’s working on, Susan Ornelas has a full plate. There’s a giant mural project she raising money for. She’s researching ways to deal with the influx of hard drugs that are plaguing the city. She’s trying to find a solution to the lack of doctors and other medical professionals in the area. She’s also running for a third term on the Arcata City Council.
The energetic councilmember, who was first elected in 2008, can boast eight years of accomplishments, guiding the city through an economic downturn, wrestling with the thorny issue of grow houses and contending with two major changes in management at City Hall.
For Ornelas, an invaluable tool for moving projects forward and getting things done is diplomacy. She cites her work on the Humboldt County Association of Governments, on which she served as the Arcata representative after being appointed mayor in 2011. The agency, made up of representatives of Humboldt’s cities and the county, prioritizes transportation projects and helps steer funding for them.
“It was uncomfortable at first,” Ornelas said about serving on the association’s board, with some members viewing Arcata with a skeptical eye. But by putting her diplomatic skills to work, Ornelas said she “was able to move the whole rail/trail thing forward.” The association got behind the movement, and Arcata is now actively working on a trail that will extend north alongside U.S. Highway 101 to Bracut. The trail, with the full backing of the Humboldt County Association of Governments, will eventually extend all the way from Arcata to Eureka, providing a bicycle and pedestrian friendly alternative to using the shoulder of U.S. Highway 101.
Another major project that finally came to fruition under Ornelas’ watch was the installation of a public bathroom right off the Plaza in downtown Arcata. “I took the lead on that,” Ornelas said. The fear, she said, was that the much-needed bathroom would turn out like the one built at the Intermodal Transit Facility near the Arcata Ball Park. People would lock themselves inside the bathroom and use it like a motel.
But over a year ago, the council finally opted to buy what’s called a Portland Loo and install it near Veterans Park off the Plaza. The key to making the project successful is the design, with the washing station located outside, Ornelas said. By most accounts, the Portland Loo has been a success, with few problems associated with it.
Ornelas recently spearheaded a project to raise money so a mural can be installed on the side of the Arcata Bay Crossing building, a housing project located south of Samoa Boulevard just west of the U.S. Highway 101 onramp. Local muralist Lucas Thornton will paint a giant mural celebrating the marbled murrelet on the side of the building. “This is going to be a signature piece for him” Ornelas said about Thornton, who was recommended by the North Coast’s most famous muralist, Duane Flatmo.
Ornelas said that the mural will cost $40,000, and so far $37,500 has been raised. She said that due to winter rains, there’s no rush to raise the remainder. By next summer, the mural will be underway.
A much more difficult project that Ornelas would like to take on is the epidemic of hard drugs that has gripped Arcata. This is epitomized by what are referred to as GMOBs, or grown men on bikes. They roam the town, looking for a fix, and a way to pay for their fix. “I’m really concerned about that,” said Ornelas, who hopes to work with law enforcement and county Mental Health to find solutions to the growing problem.
While solving drug-related problems may seem daunting, the city has had some successes. For example, during Ornelas’s tenure, the council passed the excess energy tax to deal with the numerous marijuana growing houses, which were taking over residential neighborhoods. Those using large amounts of electricity well beyond normal residential use, now have to pay a substantial energy tax. “It returned housing to people,” Ornelas said. “It returned our neighborhoods back to people.”
Another issue the city must deal with is the future of its wastewater treatment plant. Arcata uses a world-renown marsh system, which also serves as a wildlife sanctuary. The problem is that the plant doesn’t always meet state discharge requirements. Ornelas said she has a useful background for helping shape the future of the system – she has a degree in environmental resource engineering, with an emphasis in water quality.
Consultants hired by the city have recommended a $30 million upgrade, essentially creating a standard mechanical treatment plant like you would find in most major cities. The plan to go mechanical, which was supported by the consultants the city hired, was put on hold this summer by the council.
“We stopped in, backed it up and had a community meeting about it,” Ornelas said. The upgrade plans are now on hold as the city further considers its options. “It’s a huge decision,” she said.
When she’s not raising grass fed beef or working as the executive director of the Jacoby Creek Land Trust, Ornelas enjoys bicycling, oil painting and cooking.
Election Day is Nov. 8. “I’ll accept the election results, if I win or not,” Ornelas said.