Eureka’s most prolific public commenters seized the opportunity to grill city staff about a roster of local issues during a candidate briefing at Eureka City Hall this week. Seemingly at every turn, the group of five individuals – none of whom are officially running for local office – incessantly questioned city staff about hot-button issues surrounding mental health, homeless, drug abuse, needle litter and housing.
The idea behind Wednesday’s candidate briefing was to give Eureka City Council hopefuls and members of the public a better idea of how local government works ahead of the November General Election by outlining the city’s departmental structure as well as the duties and responsibilities of the mayor and council. Department representatives came prepared with presentations outlining their individual operations within the city’s organizational structure and major projects candidates ought to be aware of.
The briefing was not intended to be an open forum for community members to air out their grievances, although that seemed to be this group’s sole intent.
The forum began on a civil note with staff introductions and a brief summary of city functions from City Clerk Pam Powell. There were no more than 10 members of the public in attendance, including city council candidates Nicholas Kohl, John Fullerton and Renee Contreras De Loach. Councilmember and soon-to-be Mayor Kim Bergel was in attendance, as was her near competitor and frequent public commenter Stephen Parr, who failed to gain enough valid signatures to qualify for the mayor’s race.
Mental Health in Eureka
City Manager Miles Slattery began his portion of the forum by focusing on one of the city’s biggest issues: mental health.
“Mental health is obviously a big discussion point in the city and we’ve been trying to be really proactive,” he said. “About two years ago, we had planned on starting a pilot program for an alternative response team [that would] respond to some of the mental health-related services that [the Eureka Police Department] is regularly called out to. We worked with the [Human Resources] department to establish a mental health clinician position that we’ve recently hired for. [They are] already starting to divert … those community members that are having mental health issues away from the ER and Sempervirens to provide services.”
Parr asked why the city wanted to divert people away from Sempervirens and if the city had “any concrete plans to actually help people.” Because of staffing limitations at local hospitals and Sempervirens, Slattery said, the city is making a concerted effort to proactively respond and “treat individuals out in the field” whenever possible.
Citing “an ever-increasing number of mental health issues on our streets,” Cornelius Lowenstein, a member of the aforementioned group of public commenters, asked “what draws people here, what attracts them to Eureka?” Slattery emphasized that mental health issues “are not specific to our community members experiencing homelessness” and pointed to a marked increase in mental health issues worldwide.
“What is the percentage of the drug-riddled, psychosis-riddled people living on the streets that cause the vandalism, the crime, the decay that affect citizens, that affect tourists … versus people that are housed? Versus people that had a mental health crisis because of COVID, because of unemployment or being isolated from family?” Lowenstein persisted.
Slattery felt as though “it is a misnomer that the people that are causing those crimes are definitely community members experiencing homelessness, or even people that have mental health issues.” He added that recent data from the City’s 2022 Homeless Survey indicates homelessness has gone down in Eureka in the last two years.
Fullerton asked if the city had identified a new site for Betty Kwan Chinn’s trailer village, which aims to provide transitional housing for Eureka’s homeless. The project hit a snag in July when an early morning fire destroyed the 12 trailers that were donated to the Betty Chinn Foundation by PG&E. Even still, Slattery said the new trailers will go on the same site at the foot of Hilfiker Lane.
Parr asked if the city had looked into “more durable, less expensive alternatives” to the trailers.
“The trailers [we’re looking at] are meant specifically for people to live in,” Slattery said. “After we got the grant, COVID and supply chain things happened and the cost for everything increased significantly. That’s why we put out [a request for proposals]. We have a couple of potential people with proposals that would make the work more cost-effective.”
Harry Wilcox, another frequent public commenter, returned to the issue of crime and harassment coming from the city’s homeless community, specifically in local parks.
“You can’t even walk your dog there without getting harassed or yelled at … and people are sleeping right on the sidewalk,” he said. “This is a person – I know for a fact – [who] has had many police contacts, and they refuse to go to shelters, they refuse to get any help. I was wondering what the legal situation is [to force] these people to get help because some of them are mentally, you know, beyond talking to or dealing with.”
The County of Humboldt is currently participating in a pilot program under Laura’s Law which allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for a small subset of individuals with serious mental illness, Slattery explained. To qualify for the program, an individual must have a recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations and/or acts of violent behavior.
“If that’s not the case, there are very limited things we can do,” he said. “A lot of people will say ‘don’t bring new services here,’ but if we don’t bring in new services we cannot use the stick part of the carrot [and the stick] that we need to demonstrate that we do have the capacity to house everybody. So adding housing, adding those things and having a place for people … that need to be sheltered is a good thing. …We can’t just arrest them and put them in jail.”
Wilcox pushed back. “Give somebody housing – I’ve seen it happen – they just wreck it and walk off.”
Slattery explained, as Wilcox attempted to interrupt him, that the city “has learned from past mistakes” and has acquired a housing specialist to check in with newly housed individuals and landlords. “I think we’ve lost two folks who have been housed in a two-year period,” he said.
Parr began questioning Slattery about the money being spent on local housing initiatives. Already a half-hour into the forum, Slattery made an attempt to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand: informing candidates about City functions.
The forum would carry on this way for another hour and a half.
Economic Development and Public Works
Eureka’s Economic Development Director Swan Asbury, talked about her team’s efforts to update two of the city’s guiding documents: the Economic Development Strategic Plan and Strategic Arts Plan. Her department also oversees the Eureka Visitor Center (which recently relocated) and Eureka Main Street.
“We also manage a lot of city events like the Fourth of July and the Eureka Street Art Festival,” she said. “We also do a number of programs for business assistance. We just wrapped up a bridge program to help pay businesses’ rent over the past few years. … We also have a facade [improvement] program, which offers grants for exterior beautification and security improvements. If a business installs security cameras or exterior lighting, we will reimburse them $2,500.”
Slattery said the city’s transient occupancy tax “has broken records” in the last year. He added that development in Eureka is “probably the most it’s ever been,” with a mixed-use building going in at the corner of Second and E Streets, a new senior living facility being built on Myrtle Avenue, a hotel next to Harbor Lanes on Broadway and, of course, the EaRTH Center.
“So, where is [the city] at with the EaRTH Center?” Dianna Hardwick, another public commenter, asked.
“We have a pre-development agreement approved with Servitas,” Slattery said. “They’re working with Cal Poly Humboldt right now, and that should be coming to a head soon.”
If you recall, earlier this year the Eureka City Council gave staff the green light to move forward with the ambitious (yet contentious) transit and housing development on two city-owned parking lots on Third Street between G and H streets, behind Lost Coast Brewery. The city held numerous public meetings on the subject and, despite concerns over parking accessibility in Old Town, decided to move forward with the project.
“This room was packed with people telling you ‘We don’t want the EaRTH Center,’ so I’m hoping you’re putting the brakes on it,” Hardwick said. She pointed to the City of Arcata’s outreach efforts surrounding the Gateway Area Plan and encouraged the city to take note and engage with the public.
Slattery said the project “is not stopping because it’s already been voted on.”
Hardwick interjected, accusing the city of “not caring about the local business community.” She continued to push Slattery on the subject. After a bit of back and forth, he asked her to hold her questions until the end of the meeting when he would be happy to talk about the EaRTH Center “’til I’m blue in the face.”
During a presentation from Public Works Director Brian Gerving, Lowenstein pressed him about the presence of drugs and COVID-19 in the city’s wastewater. Gerving tried to explain that the “water coming out of the tap is absolutely safe” because the city’s wastewater treatment plant, well, treats the wastewater.
Lowenstein also asked about the presence of needle litter in the city’s plumbing system to which Gerving responded, “People flush any number of surprising things down the toilet.”
“Honestly, the biggest bane of our existence in maintaining the wastewater system are those so-called flushable wipes – which are not flushable,” he added.
James Harrison Graham, another public commenter, interjected to point out the issue of needle litter on the city’s Waterfront Trail and criticized the construction of new trails in the city.
“People are worried about new trails and their houses are nearby and they’re worried about drug addicts coming through their yard at night,” he said. “We see it all over Facebook. …So you build this new trail and the drug-addicted transients take it over and there’s needle litter all over it and human feces on the side … it doesn’t seem like a very good idea.”
Slattery interjected, once again, to emphasize that the Waterfront Trail, “all the way from Pound Road up to Tydd [Street], is 10 times better than it used to be. That’s a fact.”
Kristen Goetz, the principal planner for the City of Eureka, began talking about the city’s Waterfront Development Plan but was interrupted with concerns over needle litter throughout the city’s waterfront and more concerns about the EaRTH Center.
The group of public commenters began talking over one another and accusing staff of dodging their questions. City Clerk Pam Powell very nearly begged the group to hold their questions until the end of the meeting, reminding attendees that the intention of the meeting was to brief candidates on city functions.
This is how the remainder of the forum went. City staff would deliver a brief presentation on their department for the candidates – remember, this forum was supposed to be a candidate briefing – only to be interrupted by the small group of commenters who seemed hell-bent on stirring up controversial issues to no end.
The tone suddenly changed when Eureka’s interim police chief Todd Jarvis stepped to the front of the room as the final speaker of the evening. Suddenly the raucous group was respectful and complimentary, asking Jarvis if he had any intentions of staying with the City of Eureka as police chief (he couldn’t say) and praising the work he’s accomplished during his short time on the force.
Jarvis praised the work of EPD staff, commending them for rising to the occasion and working as hard as his former colleagues at the San Diego Police Department. “Everybody here is pitching in and working together like nothing I’ve ever seen, and that’s what has kept me here in town and makes me excited to be a part of the department,” he said. “I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, I have never seen a level of support from a community for a police department that I’ve seen here.”
Jarvis acknowledged that the department had to pull back on its Problem Oriented Policing (POP) unit and relocate the department’s Old Town Patrol officer to meet staffing needs. However, he was optimistic that new hires over the coming months will alleviate the staffing shortage.
Fullerton asked if Jarvis had any indication as to when the POP unit would be up and running. Once the city gets three of its new hires into the field, Jarvis said, EPD will be able to begin staffing special assignments. “I hope within the next six months that we can get pumped back up and running.”
Kohl asked about patrols in Old Town and requested EPD Officer Brian Ross return to his assignment. “I was able to develop a rapport with him that allowed me to engage in a way that was immediate,” he said. “I cannot stress enough how impactful he was in that district.”
Parr questioned Jarvis about the necessity of the “Big Brother cameras” and “what exactly [the city] hopes to accomplish with [this] investment.”
Jarvis explained that the security cameras were installed in specific, problem areas of the city in an attempt to deter crime but to also capture footage of crimes taking place.
“If I can solve a murder or a child abduction or anything like that with this technology, then it’s working,” he said. “Is it a perfect system? No, but I think it’s going to be beneficial.”
After Wednesday’s doozy of a meeting, the Outpost asked the three city council candidates in attendance how they felt the briefing went. In classic campaign fashion, each candidate offered a polite and gracious response.
Kohl said he “had not had the chance to meet several of the [city’s] department heads” and appreciated the opportunity to ask specific questions about the ward he hopes to serve.
“It also allowed me to ask specific questions facing the departments,” he wrote in an email to the Outpost. “I appreciated the city staff’s efforts in conveying their structure and scope. …The nature of transparent participation in government means that a meeting’s direction may be swayed by personal agenda. I felt it [was] good practice for maintaining focus and intention under those circumstances.”
Contreras De Loach, Kohl’s opponent, said she was expecting more of a discussion between city staff and the candidates about ongoing and upcoming city projects.
“I appreciated the opportunity to learn in greater detail the opportunities and challenges facing the city,” she told the Outpost. “I thought some of the presentations were excellent and was impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment shown. We have some really exciting developments in progress in Eureka and they are happening because committed and dedicated people are making them happen.”
The questions and criticisms posed by members of the public “were beneficial in giving candidates a realistic view of public discussions and criticisms that may occur after their election,” she added, noting that “misinformation and criticism is always a challenge.”
Fullerton took a similar stance.
“I asked several questions and was satisfied with the answers,” Fullerton wrote in an email to the Outpost. “I wish the five people from the public hadn’t dominated the night, a few questions from them might have been OK but they seem[ed] determined to debate issues and that was not what the event was for. I had heard from those five [people] many times before and their disruptions last night were not productive.”