Representatives from AT&T face the Board of Supervisors. | Ryan Burns.

Today’s Board of Supervisors meeting began with a couple of testy exchanges during the public comment period, setting the tone for a session that saw debate on AT&T’s horrendous local service, the prospect of a safe needle injection site in Humboldt County, and the (mis)management of our local airports.

Early on, habitual public griper Chuck Ciancio managed to get under First District Supervisor Rex Bohn’s skin with one of his oft-repeated complaints — that all members of the board lack “real world experience” and thus can’t be trusted to find their asses with both hands. (We’re paraphrasing.)

After Ciancio wrapped up his thoughts, a visibly irked Bohn sought to set the record straight by offering a brief rundown of his years working in the private sector. This retort seemed to enrage Ciancio who marched back toward the lectern hollering something indecipherable. The squabble was quickly extinguished as Board Chair Virginia Bass informed Ciancio that he wouldn’t be allowed another at-bat, and he stormed off while angrily repeating, “I’m not gonna debate you, Rex.”

Next up was moneyed property owner Kent Sawatzky, whose fondness for speaking on each and every agenda item makes Ciancio look like a wallflower. Sawatzky laid into Fifth District Supervisor Ryan Sundberg, suggesting that he’d manipulated the county’s cannabis permitting system to enrich members of his own family. Sawatzky called Sundberg “a liar” for claiming he had no metaphorical dog in the cannabis fight; he referred to the supervisor’s extended family as “the Sundberg cartel’; and he predicted (not for the first time) that legalization will render Humboldt County “a ghost town,” forcing countless locals to leave.

As Sawatzky walked away from the lectern, Sundberg could be heard offering to help Sawatzky pack his bags. (And later, during a break, Sundberg could be heard commiserating with County Counsel Jeffrey Blanck, saying none of Sawatzky’s accusations had any merit and yet he was forced to just sit there and take the abuse.)

Of course, those exchanges had little if any policy importance. The real meat of the meeting began with a presentation by AT&T. Introducing the item, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson explained that the community had a lot of questions and concerns following the phone and internet service outages that resulted from the big fires in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties (not to mention the mass outage in August or the other mass outage in August or all the many, many outages before that).

Wilson said it was an opportunity to “get some answers.”

Three company representatives were on hand. Rhuenette Alums, area director for external affairs, took the lead, offering an apology for the loss of service and an update on work being done in our region. The company has been working on a list of network improvements, including network upgrades designed to improve reliability in the case of future outages. AT&T will be installing more equipment along the Hwy. 36 corridor, and the improvement projects should be completed by mid-2018, or the end of 2018 at the latest, Alums said.

She noted that the fires served up a perfect storm, of sorts, for local customers since it wiped out AT&T’s first, second and third routes on their network. “We’d planned for a single point of failure; we never planned on two,” Alums said. This fit in with her earlier observation, which went like this: “This has been a hell of a year — for all of us.” 


Following her presentation, Alums was peppered with questions from a variety of community members, who clearly hadn’t had all their questions answered. Wilson and Sheriff Billy Honsal asked why the company can’t set up an automatic notification system like PG&E has, with a web page where people can find out exactly where service has gone down and when it might be restored.

The company representatives initially explained their phone-tree system for alerting emergency services, the county’s public information officer, the media and eventually the public, but when Wilson and others dug in on the website idea Alums agreed to look into it.

Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell suggested using DirecTV — a subsidiary of AT&T — to notify customers of outages, and Alums liked that idea.

Bohn downplayed the seriousness of internet outages, saying it was mostly a matter of “Facebook withdrawal.” But Honsal said we were fortunate not to have a fire here in Humboldt County during the October outages because with no mass notification system and those key communication routes down, “it would have been difficult or impossible to reach the critical people needed” to respond to such an emergency.

Gregg Foster, executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission (RREDC), gently reminded the AT&T officials that it’s been six years since a second broadband fiber was installed along the Hwy. 36 corridor and said that when big companies, small companies and institutions (such as hospitals and Humboldt State University) are being affected, “there needs to be a sense of urgency” when it comes to making sure the network is reliable. 

Connie Stewart, executive director of the California Center for Rural Policy, told the AT&T officials that a second east-west-oriented fiber line being installed by Inyo Networks will have space for sale, should AT&T want to buy bandwidth on it.

The next contentious item involved a statewide measure, Assembly Bill 186, that would authorize certain cities and counties — Humboldt among them — to authorize medically supervised drug injection services programs for adults. This model, which was first tried in Switzerland more than 30 years ago and has now spread to hundreds of locations around the world, has been shown to reduce the spread of infectious diseases and overdoses while reducing risk behaviors, according to a research roundup from the Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice.

But these “harm-reducing” safe injection sites have proven unpopular and controversial in the United States, and Humboldt County is no exception. Bohn had drafted a succinct letter to the Assemblymember who introduced the legislation, Rep. Susan Eggman, declining the opportunity to participate in such a program. It said, in part:

No county official in Humboldt County was contacted about inclusion in this legislation when it was introduced in the 2017 legislative session. While we appreciate innovative efforts aimed at harm reduction, we believe Humboldt County is not prepared for injection facilities.

The letter had been on the board’s consent calendar but was pulled for discussion. Bohn gave his reasoning, saying, “I just thought it was an extremely bad idea for our area.” He added that without more resources, the county’s not prepared for the problems such a facility would bring. “We’re a rural area that will not be able to support this,” he said.

Fennell went even farther, saying she found the very idea of offering a place for people to inject drugs both morally and ethically wrong. “I don’t think we should be helping them with their addiction,” she said. “We all know the incredibly negative effects of addiction. Why would we be facilitating it?”

Bass said she wasn’t a fan of how this was brought to the county before the community had a chance to discuss it, but she offered some revisions to Bohn’s letter, taking a bit of a softer tone. It begins:

I am writing on behalf of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors to express our desire to be removed from Assembly Bill (AB) 186, until such time as the community has had an opportunity to explore the potential impact of this legislation or other more robust legislation, both positive or negative, to fact find and to build a consensus among community members.

Read the full letter here.

The majority of public commenters were opposed to the prospect of a safe consumption site, with several members of the community group Take Back Eureka saying this area is just not the right place for such a facility, or more research needs to be done. 

Jeannie Breslin, who leads several neighborhood watch groups in Eureka, described the Assembly bill as an “ill-written social experiment” that would be conducted “at the expense of our citizens.” And she suggested that safe injection sites elsewhere create “a black space where communities are devastated.”

But others said the concept shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. Patty Ohman of Fieldbrook said the county was appropriately included in the legislation because of our elevated rates of opioid prescriptions, addiction and overdose deaths. “Family members are dying, and we cannot just push them out, lock them out, [or] ignore that they exist,” Ohman said.

Humboldt State University Sociology Professor Meredith Williams said she’s visited safe injection sites in the Netherlands because, she said, “I want to understand things so I don’t just come to rush decisions.”

While there, she said, “I saw them teaching people life skills and keeping people alive. The research [shows] it gets more people into treatment. There are hundreds [of these facilities] around the world, and they’ve been very successful in reducing crime.” And she urged the board to remember that addicts are still human beings.

When the item went back to the board, there was some discussion about whether to go with Bohn’s version of the letter or Bass’s. Bohn said that while he’s willing to look at any evidence, he just doesn’t think Humboldt should have been lumped into this program without being consulted first. And as for the letter, he preferred his own “short and sweet” version. “I don’t want to sugarcoat or soften it up to any extent,” he said.

But the rest of the board ultimately voted to send Bass’s version, which expresses the same sentiment — thanks but no thanks, at least for now — in slightly less definitive terms.

The last item during the meeting’s public portion was the presentation of an Airport Governance and Sustainability Study, which was recently completed by Volaire Aviation Consulting, a firm based in Indiana. Effectively, it was a report card on how the county airports are being run, and how they might be run better.

Jack Penning, a managing partner at the firm, presented some of the findings, which included a long list of recommendations. Chief among these is making the county’s airports division its own, separate department with its own department head, rather than a subsidiary of the Public Works Department.

Penning said his firm believes such a department would operate more efficiently, with enhanced expertise, better decision-making and higher stature within county government, which is appropriate, he said, given that the airports are “one of the largest economic drivers in this county.”

Among the other suggestions were an automated parking permit system, operated by the county; installation of solar panels to generate electricity; restoration of a restaurant in the main airport north of McKinleyville; a review of lease rates and the hangar wait list; and more spending on service incentives and advertising.

Oh, and about that name …

As virtually no one remembers, apparently, four and a half years ago the Board of Supervisors decided to change the name of the Arcata-Eureka Airport to the “California Redwood Coast — Humboldt County Airport.”

After conducting a survey of locals, Penning characterized that name change as an epic fail (though not in those exact words). 

“We surveyed over 500 people; not a single person knew the new name of the airport,” Penning said. “The new name of the airport is not resonating at all.” Of the 500-plus people surveyed, only 10 associated our main airport with the name “Humboldt” and no one associated it with the word “redwood.”

“It was a noble effort to find a regional name, but it’s not working,” Penning said.

When the matter came back to the board, Bohn shot back sarcastically: “You’re right, ‘Arcata-Eureka Airport in McKinleyville’ is probably a lot less confusing.” He repeated the original reasoning behind the mouthful of a name — that both “California” and “redwoods” are very popular things that people sometimes search for on the internet, and yet no other airports in the state have snatched up that lucrative SEO.

The board accepted the study, which you can read in full at the links below. It will determine which of the recommendations to adopt down the road.