What had seemed like a delusional fantasy one and a half years previously actually began to look like a real possibility. This ran through my mind one day in August 1996 as I was sitting at the National Green Gathering at UCLA. The last day for candidates to file to run for Arcata City Council had been the previous day. Only three progressive candidates had filed to run for the three vacant seats. Two Greens and one Democrat. Along with myself, this meant that Greens would have a chance to hold 3 of 5 seats on the city council, making Arcata the only city in the country with a Green majority.
Of course this notion was fun to talk about with others at the Green Gathering. I made jokes with others about how Ernest Callenbach would be moving up north immediately to begin preparations for us to break off from the old country and become "Free Arcata." Unfortunately though, we had to get down to real work quickly back in Arcata.
Our younger candidate, Jennifer Hanan, 29, was a virtual unknown in town. She had been very active in a recent campaign to stop a development project with Simpson Timber Corporation, but had not been a visible community activist before. Our other candidate, Bob Ornelas, 43, would also have to campaign hard. Bob was elected to the council in 1990, serving four years. He had the name recognition Jennifer lacked, but had seemed to alienate some constituents his previous term, as do most politicians serving four-year terms. We decided to get down to brass tacks and map out strategies early on.
I felt as though first place would easily go to Connie Stewart, the Democrat. Connie had been a party faithful for years and had lots of friends, advisors, and chips to call in. We all agreed that she would probably quickly raise enough money to hire professional staff and maybe even have a campaign office of her own, which she did. (A pretty formidable task in a town of 15,000.)
There were lots of campaign promises to be kept.
We knew the Greens couldn't raise the $5,000 or so that Connie could, but we had to do well enough to beat Carl Pellatz. Pellatz was the incumbent moderate Republican mayor who appealed more to many liberal Democrats than our more radical green candidates did. I had won in 1994 with about $2,300 and we decided that both Bob and Jen should shoot for this much.
Rather than being able to work out any kind of slate, everyone ran their own campaign. Hanan's friends from the anti Simpson campaign really pulled through. She soon had very professional looking platform "walking" pieces on unbleached recycled paper, posters on reused paper, and homemade buttons made out of scrap wood glued to safety pins with her rubber stamped logo on front. Jen soon started walking door to door on a daily basis and did good media work as well as having frequent letters to the editor in all the local papers.
Bob started off a little more slowly. The brewery that Ornelas partly owns co-sponsored an "Octoberfest," which Bob assured us would gain him a few votes. A few weeks after it was over Bob did actually kick into gear with his own tee-shirts, yard signs, buttons and tabling literature. He began tabling at Humboldt State University alongside Jennifer and at the Arcata Co-op. (Voter registration at the co-op had resulted in 50% of all registrants being registered as Greens.) Bob even tied his hair back at debates and donned a tie, reminding me of how I thought Mike Feinstein looked the first time I saw him headed to a TV debate.
Well, all of this hard work paid off. At 2:30 a.m. on election night the results were in: Connie Stewart first, Jennifer Hanan a close second, and Bob Ornelas finished two hundred votes ahead of Carl Pellatz. The fax machine was busy for the next two hours sending out a press release with the title, "Green Party gains first City Council majority in Arcata, California." This gained us stories in USA Today and People magazine. Two AP stories took us world wide, bringing reporters from Sweden, Germany, and Japan.
It would be another month before the Greens actually took office. There were lots of campaign promises to be kept. One of the first was to drop a lawsuit against a local food serving group, Food Not Bombs (FNB). Unfortunately, the day before the Greens took office on December 4, the judge ruled against a motion filed by FNB saying in effect that they could not be excluded from state laws because they gave away food instead of selling it and they would have to get a health permit. According to the City Attorney and the FNB Attorney this meant that civil charges could not be dropped. For the time being the council has chosen myself and Jennifer Hanan to work out whatever we can with FNB. The council dropped criminal charges against the group in December. Meanwhile, a local citizen who claimed he didn't want the new Green council to get bogged down in such a needless problem has donated $5,000 to get a permittable kitchen for the group. No one on the council has said they want to see FNB members fined or imprisoned and everyone hopes to work out something soon.
The council has some immediate controversies to overcome. Our local recycling center has just come to us saying they'll go belly up unless they get a bailout. Local conservatives are jumping on the issue and Greens have to be careful about legality of uses of public funds while trying to solve the problem quickly and in a more permanent than short-term fashion.
When this issue gets to the council it will probably be the toughest issue we face over the next two years.
A regional Native American health facility is slated for construction in Arcata. This would be great for everyone except that many people who opposed the Simpson development oppose this development because it, too, would be on local agricultural lands. Many environmentalists want to know how the Greens could vote against the city land-use plan which says there should be no development on number one or two grade soils. When this issue gets to the council it will probably be the toughest issue we face over the next two years.
The city is also undergoing a two-year process to totally overhaul our general plan, with a very community-oriented process for doing so. We are having lots of visioning meetings and the council meets often with staff and a citizens' task force that has been put in charge of the process.
Last week we had Arcata's annual goal-setting session which later becomes the basis for drawing up the budget for the next fiscal year. We had quite a few new ideas for 1997/98: Two new kiosks with room to advertise city meetings, a free bike program, a homeless shelter, planting trees, a campground in town, open house at city hall twice a year, a human rights committee, study of a police review board, a youth center, free summer concert series, "delighting" underground creeks and putting paths or wildlife areas alongside, and placement of bike lockers around town. Our city staff recommended building an "eco-lodge," a proposal they could never have made to the old council without fear of job loss.
Some other goals council members and citizens have suggested are: having a car-free city plaza; a straw bale or "cobb" community center; wider sidewalks; bike lanes on the two major thoroughfares; a domestic partners policy; no new roads or parking lots; development of an urban growth boundary; a smoke-free city ordinance, and making Arcata a hub for bicycle tourists visiting the redwoods.
Hopefully Arcata's Green City Council can find effective ways to create a healthy community that others can find an inspiring model.
Many in town are also trying to use our notoriety to bring great speakers to the university to educate ourselves about the possibilities we can explore. Ernest Callenbach actually did make an appearance here in December and came to the swearing in of the new council to wish us "goddess speed." Peter Berg of the Planet Drum Foundation came to talk about the Bioregional Vision in hopes of inspiring Arcata to host the next Shasta Bioregional Gathering. Of course, Chomsky, Bookchin, and others would be great to have here as well.
In March we will try to have all of the elected city council members in California meet prior to the statewide Green Party meeting in order to network and strategize. As power tends to rise to the top with agreements like GATT and with institutions like the Global Group of Seven and the European Economic Community, many of us at the local governance level see that we are left to clean up where the power elite leave their mess. Hopefully Arcata's Green City Council can find effective ways to create a healthy community which will serve as an inspiring model to others.
Jason Kirkpatrick joined the Green Movement in 1989. In 1990 he became co-founder and national co-ordinator of the Campus Green Network. He has visited Greens in 12 countries and recently met with the International Secretary of the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua.