Photos: Andrew Goff

Last Wednesday, less than 24 hours after wrapping up his final meeting as Humboldt County’s Third District supervisor, Mark Lovelace sat down with the Outpost to talk about his eight years in that position. In the process he addressed his often-adversarial relationship with fellow supervisors and explained why, if he’d gotten the chance, he probably would have voted against the long-overdue General Plan Update.

He also talked about the pitfalls of being too argumentative, the reasons why county staff deserve more credit, and the humiliating events that left him feeling powerless, prompting his decision not to seek reelection. 

The conversation, which took place over coffee in Old Town, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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What are you most proud of during your eight years on the Board?

Trying to select any one thing is a little bit hard, partly because anything we do as a group takes at least three people, and even then it doesn’t happen unless staff actually does it. … We get all the glory — or all the grief — for our decisions, but staff are the ones that do the actual work. …

The bigger issues that have been accomplished in the last eight years are things like the movement on the Klamath towards a deal that just found a brilliant workaround to not require Congressional approval. … The Trinity River, getting the recognition of [Humboldt’s water rights]. After 60 years getting someone to say, “Yes, the contract says what the contract says.” That was something that was a long time in coming. Nod to [former county supervisor] Jill Duffy for highlighting that issue for a number of years.

Certainly moving cannabis towards a rational policy issue rather than this hysterical values-based issue where people were either for it or against it. That’s something that took a lot of years of just being willing to talk about it. It’s telling now that when we have discussions about cannabis policy almost no one shows up. It’s become as boring a routine as the godforsaken General Plan Update.

Is there anything you hoped to accomplish that —

You know the answer to this one, right? When I came into office in 2009, I never would have imagined that eight years later the General Plan Update would still be hanging out there.

What got it off-track? Why has it taken this long?

I think the General Plan Update is an example of something that can be a downfall of electoral government, which is that when you have a process that takes a long time, every time someone new gets elected — and I’m not pointing to any one person; it would apply to pretty much anyone I know that’s been elected in any office — you know, history starts the day you get sworn in. And when you’ve got something that’s been ongoing for 12 years before you even ran for office, that can be a really daunting task, to really wrap your head around it.

The General Plan Update contains somewhere around 1,000 separate policies to be worked through. And all of those policies, over time, were based upon board direction to staff over many years. And that was based upon a process of study and analysis and so many meetings and workshops to find out what’s important to people, to different interests and stakeholder groups. But wrapping your head around the history of it, if you weren’t there, you pretty much have to rely on a narrative of what’s happened. And if the narrative you’ve been fed is, “It was a rogue staff that was just doing it their own way, and [former Planning Director] Kirk Girard’s the devil,” then you’re going to see the whole thing through that lens.

What do you think about where the [draft] General Plan is now, where the policies have ended up?

I’d bet good money that it’s not going to be back [before the board] until 2018. That’s just my guess. When it was still targeted to come to us before the end of this year I struggled a lot with [the question of] what would I do when this thing came forward? Where would I stand on it? …

“The General Plan was basically watered down to the point of meaninglessness.”

There’s a lot of things in there where it was 4-1 and my input was completely ignored. The biggest frustration were things specific to the Third District, like some of the open space policies that applied only to the Third District, where my colleagues showed zero interest or deference in listening to the person who’d been elected by the people of the Third District.

My inclination — not having gotten to that point, obviously — is that I probably would have voted against it. Though there were still some good things in there, as a whole it was basically watered down to the point of meaninglessness.

The General Plan is supposed to be a vision of the future. It has to start with an idea of what we want Humboldt County to look like 20 years from now. And when you say, “Well, we don’t really have an idea of what we want it to look like; we just want it to be a product of individuals doing their own thing,” it abdicates that responsibility. I really don’t know that anyone could tell me what this General Plan does or what that vision is for the future.

What’s behind the recent discussion about the makeup of the Planning Commission? Because it seems like it dates back to when the Board sent a memo reminding commissioners that they’re not really supposed to do anything without the direction of the Board.

“There are some people on the Planning Commission who want to be county supervisors. They want to set the policy agenda.”

I think the struggle the board has had in recent years has been that there are some people on the Planning Commission who want to be county supervisors. They want to set policy, and they want to set the policy agenda. … 

Is it safe to say that [HumCPR co-founders] Lee Ulansey and Robert Morris are among that contingent?

I think it’s safe to say that. And if someone wants to set policy for the county, then they should run for the Board of Supervisors. That’s where it happens. When you raise money for candidates, and you back candidates, and you get an appointment by the people you supported, none of that makes you a policymaker. You have access and a voice. You have someone’s phone number on speed dial, but that doesn’t make you a supervisor. …

There are people who feel HumCPR has had an undue influence on the Board of Supervisors. Do you feel like the supervisors have remained somewhat autonomous?

Honestly, doing this interview is a little tricky, because I want to talk as openly and honestly as I can about things —

Why not?

I don’t want to say anything that sounds like attacking my colleagues or sour grapes, but more importantly recognizing that there’s still work to be done. Dividing people doesn’t necessarily help. …

It’s hard to deny that a group of people — a cabal, if you will — strongly associated with Humboldt CPR invested tens of thousands of dollars — hundreds of thousands of dollars — into county electoral politics. They’ve gotten various appointments, and they’ve been very effective. …

“I think there’s a natural tendency in people to accept the narrative that’s closest to your existing worldview.”

When there’s a whole range of issues that are new to you and you need to catch up on them, you’re going to reach out to people. … And if you reach out to folks on one side or the other you get two completely differing narratives. … I think there’s a natural tendency in people to accept the narrative that’s closest to your existing worldview, or that is brought by people that you trust or belong to.

There have been a number of crises in recent years — in the Mental Health Branch, the Aviation Division, roads, ADA stuff. Why did these things have to reach a crisis point before they were addressed? 

I think it’s unrealistic to expect that any one supervisor will be able to track everything that’s going on, or even the board as a whole. When you have a department that you’re not hearing any feedback from, any complaints, there can be a tendency to assume things must be going fine. If you don’t have a reason to dig in and investigate then you probably won’t put your time there.

So there are times something kind of explodes. And that’s one of the things that I know is important to all of my colleagues in our relationship to department heads is what we call a “no-surprises” policy: “Do not let us learn about something first in the paper — or on the goddamn LoCO.” [Laughs.] 

And with the Mental Health Division, the problems all came to the fore very swiftly, with very little notice, even though they’d been long-simmering. There hadn’t been communication through the chain of command. I’m not gonna say where I think the blockage may have been, but it didn’t make it to the board until it was ready to explode. 

Aviation was much more foreseeable. … I think there was a misdirection of what the problem was, for a time. There tended to be a focus on individuals rather than on departmental structure and fiscal issues — and in the sense that it’s a government problem when the reality is that all the problems with aviation can be traced right back to the private sector. It’s air service. You can’t fund the airport and its operations without a certain level of commercial traffic. That’s the private sector. Despite the term “air service,” it’s not a service; it’s a business. They’re not here out of recognizing any need we have … . It’s about butts in seats. It’s a purely private sector, free-market issue. …

Some people have said, “Maybe what we need to do is get the airport out from under the county, create an airport district or have it taken over by another entity.” Unless someone can demonstrate to me how a different structure results in more people flying I think it’s a fool’s errand. It really comes down to the service factor, and the county has been beating the drums for increased air service. We’ve been building relationships with a lot of different airlines. 

I’ve heard a few people address Grand Jury reports and what they perceive as a lack of accountability and follow-through. How do you measure success and accountability with responses?

We have no oversight [over the Grand Jury]. It’s supposed to run the other way: They’re a check on us. And sometimes the relationship can be a little tense. They offer suggestions to us that we may not want to hear.

There’s an aspect to the Grand Jury process, though: You’re required to reply to their recommendations in a certain way. “The recommendation has been implemented/will be implemented/will not be implemented … .” The language can sound like we’re flipping off the Grand Jury. We’re not. This is what we’re required to do, respond in this way.

We’ve had, clearly, a lot of really dedicated people on the Grand Jury for many years. We’ve also had a couple of years where we had very politically stacked Grand Juries, with people from HumCPR loading it up. And they had their own agenda. So the Grand Jury process can be difficult. 

Often times the Grand Jury, despite its best efforts, may or may not be able to get the full picture on some things. The information they get is dependent on who they choose to interview and bring in. … I will say the Grand Juries that we’ve had the last couple years in particular have put a phenomenal amount of work in. The reports that they’ve generated have been very well researched. It’s been great to see that.

Why didn’t you run for reelection?

[Long pause.] A number of things. Obviously, though my relationship with my board has been much improved over the last year here, that hasn’t always been the case. A lot of the differences, particularly over the General Plan Update, really damaged my working relationship with some of my colleagues. My mistake, perhaps, was in seeing our differences more through the ideological lens — “I’m over here and they’re over there” — when most times the differences with my colleagues were in how we approach the work, how we work through things.

I tend to think of myself as more analytical in my approach to stuff, more policy-based, and frankly more argumentative, thinking, “I’m going to do my research, come to my position on things and argue for my position, why I think it’s the right one.” Implicit in that is why I think someone else’s opinion may not be the right one. That’s never meant as a personal attack, and people who work through things in that way, who have that argumentative approach to things, relish that. To me that’s how I learn, and my favorite position is to be in a real solid debate with people who are smarter than me, who can kick my ass in that way. That’s how I learn, is by putting forth my best arguments and having to defend them.

“It was frankly humiliating to be treated that way by my own colleagues.”

And not everyone does that. … It took me a while to realize that I was working with people who have a very different approach to working with policy than I do. It’s much more relationship-based, much more conversational, perhaps — “Where do you stand on this? Where do you stand on that?” — just take the temperature of a number of people [to] help you see a couple different frames through which to see your issue.

By the time I started realizing that the differences with most of my colleagues weren’t ideological but more in how we work through issues, I think there’d already been a fair bit of damage done.

Did the so-called “back slap” incident play a role in your decision?

Yes, but not the back slap [itself]. While certainly I have to be responsible for my own actions at all times, and I own that, the event that led up to that — being completely thrown under the bus over co-chairing the Coastal Counties [Regional Association], which wouldn’t even have been in existence if I hadn’t resuscitated it. …

It was [long pause] … . It was frankly humiliating to be treated that way by my own colleagues in front of people I’d been working with for many years. To be treated that way was shocking, and not just to me. Other people in the room were pretty shocked by the way my colleagues acted on that. That was kind of a topper after so many other things — and so many things that followed since that, so many areas that I’d been investing my time in and working hard on that just, one by one, got taken away from me.

If I wanted to stay on the board and wanted to have a good working relationship with my colleagues, like I’ve had for the last year, basically I [would have] had to give up being able to get things done that were important to me. The job is much too important to me to have that be the approach to the work.

I’d have so many conversations with people that would bring an issue to me. I’d say, “I’m totally there with you. If you can get two other people on board, they know I’m the third vote.” But I couldn’t be the first or second. If I bring it forward it’s probably gonna die.

[Third District Supervisor-Elect] Mike Wilson seems ideologically pretty similar to you.

Yeah, but again, it’s not an ideological issue. I think it’s a relationship issue, and I think he has the opportunity to forge new relationships, which I’ve seen him do in the past with the Harbor District. When Mike came on to the Harbor District 10 years ago, I remember going to meetings where it was just abundantly clear that he was not welcome at the dais. And he stuck it out, and he worked with them, and he built their respect. He got them to come around and see his viewpoint, or he was able to come around to see theirs and would help them with things that were important to them. And he was able to build an effective working relationship that really resulted in turning the Harbor District around from what I think a lot of people saw as just being one of the remaining vestiges of the old boy network up here to [an agency] that’s been very strong and proactive and forward-thinking and has become one of the strongest economic engines of Humboldt County.

It almost sounded like you were saying earlier that reasoning and argument don’t necessarily work with your now-former colleagues on the board.

You can’t get your point across if people are not interested in listening and that’s the starting point. You can’t even have a discussion if their ears have become closed to you. And I have to own a part of that for thinking, again, that if I just lay everything out, the way I feel about it and why I’m passionate about it, then they’ll just realize the brilliance of my position and say, “Gee, Mark’s right.” It doesn’t work that way.

I like to think that I’m good at policy but I suck at politics. And politics doesn’t just mean left-right, blue-red, Democrat-Republican. I don’t mean politics in that way. I mean politics in terms of how you approach people to get them on your side. I tend to be much more blunt. … That approach tends to rub some people the wrong way, perhaps. … The position’s too important to take up that space if you’re not able to push for the issues that are important to you. It just seemed like it was time to step down and pursue other things.

What are you doing next?

I’m gonna be continuing to work on policy issues that I think are important, through other avenues — private consulting, working with other local governments, most notably around cannabis policy. There’s so many places around the state that are years behind where we are in Humboldt County, that are still struggling with how to even talk about the issue. …

There’s so much work that needs to be done around the state, and what I’ve seen is that most of the people who’ve been running in to fill that void post-MMRSA, post-AUMA, have been people from the industry itself, which is not a bad thing. Every industry should have its voice at the table. But the public position needs to be more agnostic. It’s not pro-industry; it’s not anti-industry. It’s just, “How do we regulate it?”

Any final thoughts?

One thing I’d really want to emphasize, as I have numerous times over the years, is my appreciation of all the department heads and all of our staff, because there’s nothing we do on Tuesdays that amounts to anything, that creates any improvement whatsoever in Humboldt County, if staff don’t do it. We talk about stuff; staff are the ones that actually do the work.

And on top of that, they’re the experts. There’s hardly a job in the county that doesn’t require you to actually have some experience or skill in that thing you’re being hired to do before you can get hired. There’s five jobs that don’t — the Board of Supervisors. Because the only qualifications are you have to be 18, you have to live in your district, you gotta have a pulse, and you gotta be able to convince 50 percent of the voters, plus one, to vote for you. …

Our staff, they’re doing what they do because over the years they took an interest in an issue, found out they were good at it; they went to school, they studied, they got a degree, certification, this that. They’re professionals — they’re engineers, they’re administrators, they’re planners, they’re attorneys, they’re social workers — whatever that position is. They had to actually know a thing or two to get that job.

It’s a strange relationship, if you think of it in that way, that they’re the ones advancing issues day-to-day and then the last step, they bring it before five lay people and say, “What do you think?” and expect us to be able to dig into it well enough to make the right decision on it. It’s a very weird thing.

The whole discussion at the staff level is all policy. It’s all fact-based. They’re technicians, basically. And our world is all narrative-based. It’s all values-based.