Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – With no less than 10 of Arcata’s estimated 18,431 citizens roaming about the landscape as City Council candidates looking for votes, there’s a decent possibility that the other 18,421 A-town folk have had some contact with this year’s City Council hopefuls.
Stacy Atkins-Salazar, Emily Grace Goldstein, Nick Matthews, Oryan Peterson-Jones, Paul Pitino, Sarah Schaefer, Kimberley White, Michael Winkler, Collin Yeo and Camilla Zapata have all adapted as best they can to COVID-cautious campaigning.
Their outreach has been severely hampered by this year’s extraordinary coronavirus precautions, which rule out many traditional candidate tactics and tools such as door-to-door canvassing, rallies, glad handing at the usual civic gatherings such as Chamber of Commerce mixers and the Farmers Market.
Still, the council hopefuls have found ways to work within safety guidelines to get their message out, and let the public bend their ears about what’s on their mind.
While the 10 candidates report back a range of citizen concerns, some common themes are housing and the related matter of the unhoused, mental health treatment, the economy, the environment, change in Arcata politics and the crying need for substantive reforms in several areas during the post-COVID reboot.
In some cases, the issues that candidates say citizens bring up with them tend to also reflect their platforms and priorities, and their status as an incumbent or otherwise.
Several candidates put housing on the top of the list of voter comments, with issues including affordability, availability, rent control and the related matter of homelessness.
“Housing is a concern, and homeless people,” Atkins-Salazar said. “That’s the main thing that’s been brought up.”
“Housing came up, in every facet,” Zapata said, and among all demographics. “I knew that that problem was there, but not that much of it,” Zapata said.
The economic crash, she said, has seen the dream of getting an Arcata home “pushed back” among first-time homebuyers. Young business owners, she said, tell her they can’t afford an Arcata home and are looking in McKinleyville and Eureka.
Young people who hold service jobs have either lost them or are working reduced hours, and are in particular jeopardy, according to Yeo. “Most are renters and have no real protection from pandemic fallout,” he said. “They’re afraid of losing their homes. They feel like they’re being kicked out of Arcata. Why is there no relief?”
He’s not confident that renters are being adequately represented on the City Council, and favors Prop 21 for expanding local governments’ ability to enact serious rent control.
“The top thing that gets mentioned over and over is housing,” Goldstein said. “People want to see more affordable housing, not just with rentals, but being able to buy a home.”
Still, the plight of rental tenants “comes up a lot more,” she said. “They want safe and clean places to continue living in.”
Goldstein favors rent control as an economic stimulus measure. “If folks can’t make rent, they don’t have disposable income to spend in stores,” she said. “If we help each other thrive, the whole community thrives.”
“Arcata is doing relatively well as far as subsidized housing and homeless services,” Winkler said, “but many other people are being squeezed by high rents, high real estate prices and loss of income related to COVID.”
Affordable housing, homelessness, jobs and mental health services form a matrix of related problems, according to Schaefer. Rent control also comes up among with she’s spoken with. “Those issues all link together,” she said.
Homelessness and mental illness, and the impacts of those often-related phenomena is “something expressed over and over,” Matthews said. “It’s not anything that’s new, but now it’s front and center.”
He said the COVID-caused homeless camps that the city set up could be seen as a pilot project, despite some negative interactions with the public that would need to be mitigated.
“It has the potential to be quite wonderful,” he said. “They definitely need supervision and oversight to be successful. These are human beings.”
Atkins-Salazar said the homeless camps have been a useful proof of concept, but that the downtown sites weren’t optimal for the occupants or the rest of the public.
“We’re all in agreement, that’s not the best location,” she said. “That’s how the people in the camps felt – like they were in a fishbowl.”
Still, she said of the homeless camps, “the public perception has been pretty positive.”
“The million-dollar question is where to put them,” Matthews said.
“People are concerned about the unhoused, and the trash and garbage,” White said. The local lack of mental health care is responsible for much of the problem, she said.
Zapata has heard support for the Housing First model she favors, which calls for homes to be provided for the unhoused as a first step to addressing the rest of their issues, such as mental health and drug dependency.
Goldstein bases her policies on Housing First, which gives the unhoused a stable platform from which they can address education, employment, drug dependency and other harm reduction.
Yeo said homelessness and other issues offer Arcata an opportunity to stop resting on its overblown progressive laurels and do something meaningful. “Visible poverty has risen dramatically,” he said. “There’s a sense of frustration. Where are the resources for this problem?”
“Businesses are very concerned about the economy,” Matthews said. “It really goes beyond the pandemic. It’s been going on for years.”
“In the near future, our hands are tied,” said Atkins-Salazar. “We don’t yet have a plan going forward.”
Yeo says Arcata isn’t making the most of opportunities for structural change to empowers the local and regional economy. AB857, which Governor Newsom signed into law last year, allows the creation of public banks which can provide public agencies access to loans at interest rates much lower than what’s charged at private banks.
“I don’t see why Arcata isn’t in the forefront of this,” he said. He said he’s weary of the council “rearranging the deck chairs” with small-potatoes nips and tucks.
Schaefer notes the many vacant storefronts on the Plaza, and says “we really need to do a rethink.” Among the remedies she is looking at are the oft-mentioned increased community presence on the Plaza, including creation of a proper tourism center for visitors.
Of the closed and struggling businesses on the Plaza, Matthews, former Pacific Paradise owner, stands in solidarity because, he said, “I was one of them.”
“It really is about rallying around our local store owners,” Goldstein. “We really value our small businesses.”
Pitino notes that he, along with Councilmember Brett Watson, are participants in the Economic Collaboration Group, along with representatives of the Arcata Chamber of Commerce, Arcata Main Street and Humboldt State.
“There’s definitely a lot of room for work in restoring the economy,” he said. Until the plague lifts, he said, we’re best advised to “continue forward, work online and bring money to the economy.”
White sees the lots of potential for economic restoration in the underultilized cannabis industry, and would like more cannabis-centered events to promote the homegrown industry. “Local farmers held us together when fishing and logging collapsed,” she said. With their help, she said, “we can really pull out of this well.”
Another local industry ripe for promotion is Arcata’s burgeoning but disorganized arts community, according to Peterson-Jones. He’d like to see a city-wide arts program expediting creation of public art, including murals and sculpture. “Arcata can definitely do that,” he said. “I don’t see why we haven’t.”
“Climate change is what a lot of people are really concerned about,” Peterson-Jones said. But he takes heart in the huge, quick changes made to address the pandemic as showing that similarly serious measures could be taken to counter global warming.
“There’s been an improvement in air quality and pollution,” because of the reduction in vehicular travel, he noted. “We need to be in that state of mind” about climate change, he said. “We can fix this.”
“Sea level rise is definitely a major issue,” Goldstein said. She advocates for environmental justice, green transportation, green jobs and green energy.”
“Many people are concerned about this and see the fires and bad air as evidence,” Winkler said. “People generally support local renewable energy, but are also concerned about impacts on wildlife and social impacts of renewable energy projects.”
Schaefer sees climate change and public transportation as a related problems, since the latter can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Making public transportation more robust will help with climate change,” she said. Access to transportation would also help empower the unhoused and disenfranchised.
Public transport, along with jobs, housing and mental health services are all interconnected, Schaefer believes. “It goes with equity,” Schaefer said. “It’s an intersectional issue.”
Goldstein agrees. “Making public transportation more frequent, and serving more places isn’t just a matter of the environment, but equity,” she said. “Everything is deeply connected.”
Equity and policing
Yeo likes the current push for police reform, but as with other issues, shares with the voters he talks to considerable skepticism about the process.
“We seem to have, at least on paper, a more progressive policing model than many communities,” he said. But people want to know, “Why do we have so many police officers in such a small town? Are they a force for peace?”
On police reform, said Winkler, “People support it, but differ on degree of changes that are necessary.”
“This is something folks want to see – changes around the services offered,” Goldstein said. Diverting funding to mental health services, for example, would relive police of a task for which they aren’t well suited.
“It goes hand in hand with housing and prevention,” she said. “There are things that police shouldn’t be tasked with, and our focus really needs to be on getting these services away from policing and punishment.”
Zapata hears a desire to restructure, if not totally defund the police. “Looking at it through a new lens, toward what really is needed,” she says of police reform.
Atkins-Salazar hasn’t heard a lot about defunding the police and reimagining law enforcement, which surprises her. “I thought that would be what more people wanted to talk about,” she said. Conversations on this and other matters have been less about specifics, but “more about frustration with the system.”
Another equity issue has to do with access to information, says Zapata, because now, “Everything is word of mouth.” She sees basic and useful facts as being locked behind confusing, impenetrable websites like the City of Arcata’s, and a lack of resources available in Spanish and other languages spoken locally.
“The city website needs a how-to section,” she said, for example, for prospective homeowners. “How to do this, how to do that.”
White sees a dire need to improve mental health services for those in need. Especially young people, who presently have to travel to Redding. “We don’t have anything for the youth,” White said. “Kids are shipped five or six hours over a winding mountain road.”
Yeo supports removal of the McKinley statue, but sees it as largely symbolic and laments the lack of follow-through with deeper reform. “You got rid of the statue, great,” he said. “That’s the most performative thing you could do.”
Schaefer said getting rid of the statue should be a precursor to meaningfully elevating the Wiyot presence in Arcata and its politics. She’d like to see a public installation of some kind recognizing the Wiyot people as well as permanent representation on city committees by the Wiyot Tribe.
She also wants to find ways to make students from Southern California feel safer and more welcome in Arcata, particularly Black and Latinx youth. “We need to involve these young voices in the community,” Schaefer said.
Pitino says he’s hearing about citizen oversight of police, creation of a dog park and homeless campgrounds, but that “the one that rides over all of that is 5G.” He’s skeptical of the new high-speed wireless technology, and wants to find ways for the council to constrain its implementation in Arcata.
“We need to figure it out and get an ordinance of some sort, even if it’s weak,” he said. “We might be able to restrict it in residential neighborhoods” based on aesthetic grounds, he said. He’s also trying to find out if and how Arcata can access the new fiberoptic cable from Singapore that will run through town.
White would like to apply some imagination and innovation to Valley West, which for many visitors checking into motels is the first part of Arcata they see. She would like to install hanging flower baskets to spruce up Valley West Boulevard, and identify sponsors among the motels.
Yeo said the “number one concern” is about election integrity, “because of the presidential race.”
“People bring it up, but as a City Council member and candidate, I try to stay focused on local issues where we can be most effective and are most likely to find common ground,” Winkler said.
“Keeping our families and our community safe and trying to lead some semblance of normal personal and business life until a safe and effective vaccine is widely available,” is top of mind for many, Winkler said. He thinks Arcatans have, by and large, behaved smartly and responsibly to help suppress the virus locally.
Matthews would like to see improved collaboration between the city and Humboldt State to “go forward with more of an interactive experience.” A better working relationship, he said, would include more “open dialogue included in the process.”
He also wants to rebuild Arcata’s infrastructure, and supports the modernization of the Wastewater Treatment Plant. “That has to be done to make sure it’s up to code,” Matthews said.
Winkler agrees, and says most people he talks to do as well, despite the increase in water and wastewater rates that will help pay for it. “Most people recognize that the increases are necessary to maintain and rebuild the system and comply with environmental standards,” he said. “Many people feel financially squeezed and want lower rates for people who find it hard to pay higher rates.”
Goldstein wants to find ways to ensure that students are heard, both by the university and in the community.
“It’s an important relationship in both directions. She said of town-gown relations.
She says this is a prime time to begin planning for the post-COVID world. “I think we can start now with reimagining some of our institutions and be ready for that,” she said. “Arcata has an opportunity to be a leader.”
Yeo sees the future paved in part with open space and trails, and supports their improvement via the current ballot measure. “People are excited about Measure A,” he said.
Zapata would like the General Plan update to better serve people’s needs. “The human aspect is really missing, and can be reincorporated,” she said.
She believes the current coronavirus crisis is a lull before a huge, redefining resurgence. “It’s exciting,” she said. I’m very hopeful to come out the other end of this.”
Historically, she said, “After the plague came the Renaissance.”
Atkins-Salazar wants to make sure recovery is on a sound footing, with details attended to and fundamentals in place before major shiny new projects are attempted. “Basic needs need to be met before we go forward with big ticket items,” she said.
“There’s so much on the plate that needs to be addressed,” Matthews said.
“It’s a pivotal time for so many reasons, both locally and nationally,” Goldstein said. “People are excited about what could be.”
Atkins-Salazar said the coronavirus adaptations in place now presage meaningful change that the right civic leaders can maximize. “It’s a good time to step into leadership,” she said. She wants to evolve out of the polarized politics that have beset the country. “I don’t want our community to be torn apart like the nation,” she said.
“We’ve shaken so much up, we’re primed for change,” Zapata said. “Not just grandfathering in how we’ve done it forever. It’s a very great opportunity.”
“I hear over and over that we need change,” Matthews said. “It’s an opportunity for a fresh new perspective on the council that we haven’t had, and they’re ready for that.”
Incumbent Pitino said he’d love to see a majority female City Council, and recommends voting “for me and a couple women.”
Schaefer respects those who have served Arcata up until now, but sees a need for fresh eyes on everything. “It’s time for a new generation of leadership,” she said.
The current field, most agree, gives voters a range of good choices to bring that about.
“I’m super impressed with the caliber of all the candidates,” White said. That sentiment is echoed by many.
“I’m running against nine other incredible humans,” Goldstein said. “I think we’re all really impressed with each other.”
“Get out and vote, no matter who it’s for,” she urged. “Your voice matters.”
“I want Arcata to vote its conscience, for those who best represent their values,” Peterson-Jones said. “Arcata will be fine; it always is. There are 10 good choices.”