HUMBOLDT – Arcata Councilmember Alex Stillman’s recent appointment to the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) has disappointed railroad development advocates and one of them has questioned the appointment’s legality.
The reaction to Stillman’s appointment has been strong enough to motivate the committee to re-examine it at its July 16 meeting.
Stillman’s May 16 appointment to the NCRA’s Board of Directors was made by a City Selection Committee composed of the mayors of the county’s seven cities. Two weeks later, Bill Bertain, a Eureka attorney and spokesman for the Rail and Port Infrastructure Task Force advocacy group, sent a letter to the committee asking that Stillman’s appointment be “rescinded and/or voided” because there “appear to be clear violations of the Mayor’s City Selection Committee Rules and Procedures.”
The committee is supported by staff of the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG) and its rules and procedures state that an appointee candidate’s resume and correspondence must be submitted three weeks before a selection is made to “provide adequate time to include nominee statements in the appropriate agenda mailings.”
Stillman’s correspondence was submitted about a week before the committee voted to appoint her. But HCAOG Director Marcella Clem said the advance submittal provision is only for the purposes of including correspondence in agenda materials. Candidates can actually be considered at any time prior to a vote, including the day of the meeting when a vote takes place, she continued.
Perhaps a more relevant aspect of Bertain’s objection is that a committee appointee is required to be aligned with the NCRA’s mission statement and its goal of “maintaining railroad service to the North Coast area of California.”
“By her public statements for quite some time now, Alexandra Stillman has disqualified herself from serving on the NCRA Board of Directors,” Bertain wrote. “Although I understand that Alexandra Stillman has recently declared her support for passenger rail service between Eureka and Arcata, l believe she has consistently and vocally opposed the return of freight service to Humboldt County and would certainly be contradicting her previous statements if she were to claim otherwise.”
Asked about that, Stillman said she supports the consensus rail-with-trail approach that emerged from a series of meetings of an NCRA subcommittee on rail issues. “It was decided that rail-with-trail is the way to go and I fit right in with that,” she continued.
Stillman’s appointment was decided in a close vote. At first the selection committee was deadlocked, as one of the mayor/members was absent. But to move an appointment, Eureka Mayor Frank Jager changed his vote for Fortuna Mayor Doug Strehl and switched it to Stillman.
Last week’s Eureka City Council agenda included an item on Jager’s action but it was pulled off of it shortly before the meeting. Eureka Councilmember Mike Newman had sent Stillman an e-mail informing her that his concerns about her appointment are due to questions about “your being opposed to rails with trails.”
Stillman’s response may have been more than what Newman bargained for. After explaining that she supports operation of a tourist train in similar scale to the “speeder” cars now in use between Eureka and Arcata, Stillman said her “favorite idea” is to put a Budd car – a stainless steel diesel passenger rail car once manufactured by the Budd Company – on the tracks.
But who would be the instigators of such a venture? “I have talked to my girlfriends over the years about how we could run a Budd car back and forth between Eureka/Arcata and be the operators,” Stillman informed Newman. “That would be a kick and could work.”
In the interview, Stillman said Bertain’s depiction of her opposition to rail development isn’t accurate. Though skeptical about the financial viability of freight service, Stillman said a lighter, speeder-type tourist train is doable in the short term.
Bertain had also pointed out that Stillman had incorrectly referred to the NCRA board as the “Northwest Railroad Authority Board” in her appointment letter. Stillman acknowledged the mistake and explained that it was a mix-up with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad Company, the NCRA’s operator, which has been maligned by trail advocates as having gotten a sweetheart lease deal.
Stillman attended her first meeting as an NCRA boardmember in Healdsburg on June 12 and showed that she’s not hesitant to speak her mind. As described in recently-appointed NCRA Boardmember Richard Marks’ Samoa Softball blog, Stillman responded to a quandary over whether to allow a fish habitat restoration project within the NCRA’s corridor by saying, “Where we come from, we don’t hold our fish hostage.”