By Daniel Mintz
Division over the viability of railroad development is sure to spike now that trails-friendly Arcata Councilmember Alex Stillman has been pulled off the North Coast Railroad Authority (NCRA) Board of Directors.
The committee that appoints a city representative to the NCRA board met July 16 to re-evaluate Stillman’s appointment, which had been made a month earlier to the chagrin of railroad advocates.
A majority of the mayors that make up the committee voted to rescind the appointment and after spirited debate and some confusion over process, the same majority voted to appoint Fortuna Mayor Doug Strehl to the NCRA board in Stillman’s place.
When Stillman was appointed, Ferndale Mayor Stuart Titus was absent and the committee was deadlocked between Stillman and Strehl. Eureka Mayor Frank Jager broke the tie by switching his vote from Strehl to Stillman.
But the appointment was soon challenged on procedural grounds by Eureka Attorney and rail advocate Bill Bertain, triggering a reassessment and the follow-up meeting.
Marcella Clem, the executive director of the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG), which provides staff support to the committee, downplayed the alleged procedural glitch but David Tranberg, HCAOG’s attorney, said that “it’s pretty obvious that a mistake was made” involving a paperwork submittal deadline.
With the appointment voided, a vote on re-doing it was pursued, with Stillman and Strehl once again vying for the pick.
Deliberations on it were marked by two twists – Titus created another deadlock situation by nominating himself as a third candidate and Eureka Councilmember Mike Newman, a strong rail development supporter, represented Eureka instead of Jager, a longtime Boy Scout troopmaster who’s a trails enthusiast.
In making a motion to appoint Strehl, Newman explained that it’s what most Eureka councilmembers want. “Our council was in discussion and we were behind the appointment of Doug Strehl,” he said, adding that Jager wasn’t at the meeting because he “had other things to do.”
Earlier, Stillman said that she supports a “rails with trails” approach but Newman said that’s not quite the stance supported by a majority of his city’s councilmembers. “We’re more in support of rails first, versus trails,” he continued.
Stillman had also described the southern end of the NCRA’s line as a redevelopment priority, while Strehl asserted that railroad development is a local economic necessity.
During a public comment session, rail supporters lobbied for Strehl and rail skeptics rallied for Stillman. The committee was equally divided with northern city reps, including Arcata Mayor Shane Brinton, supporting Stillman – with the exception of Eureka via Newman.
Trinidad Mayor Julie Fulkerson recounted Stillman’s long track record of achievement and questioned the re-appointment process. “We’re going to look like a bunch of flakes if we change our nomination at this point,” she said.
Noting Newman’s presence in place of Jager, Fulkerson suggested that there have been private discussions about getting Stillman off the NCRA board. “I don’t know what happened in Eureka – Frank was here last time, and saw that this was an opportunity to build bridges,” she said. “Something happened – and I don’t think it’s going to be discussed – but I find it offensive.”
Votes on appointing Stillman and Strehl were each deadlocked because Titus – the swing voter – voted against both of them due to being a candidate himself.
It seemed that there was no way for the committee to move an appointment but Fulkerson offered a plan. “We can get around it the way we did it the last meeting, because we had one gracious person who changed his vote,” she said. She told Newman, “You could honor the spirit of your mayor and change your vote.”
“How about you changing your vote?” asked Rio Dell Mayor Jack Thompson.
Fulkerson said her decision-making has been “consistent” and “I’m not interested in sending a message to the rail board that we’re indecisive.”
Faced with a lingering deadlock, the committee emerged from it by voting on whether to appoint Titus. The only one who voted in favor of that was Titus.
Having been eliminated as a candidate, he broke the tie by voting for Strehl.
Another matter was settled at the meeting – HCAOG is stepping out of the railroad debate crossfire. “We’re getting out of this business as of 5 p.m. today,” Tranberg said, explaining that from now on the clerk of the county’s Board of Supervisors will provide staff support to the committee.
After the meeting was adjourned, Newman was asked about the suggestion of closed door decision-making and why he was there instead of Jager. In a rush to get to the Eureka council meeting, Newman disregarded the question as a reporter walked beside him.
Fulkerson was nearby and said, “C’mon, Mike – you can talk and walk at the same time, don’t be like George Bush, speak up.”
But Newman was mum.