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Synthesis/Regeneration 16   (Summer 1998)

Greening Cities

An Interview with Arcata City Councilor Jason Kirkpatrick

by Paul Cienfuegos, Democracy Unlimited

Paul: You were elected to the Arcata City Council by a comfortable margin in the November 1994 election. At that time you were still in a minority of one as a Green City Council member. Now you sit on the first Green Party majority City Council in US history. Why did you choose to run?

Jason: I hadn't given it much thought until I visited the European Greens in 1992. I was the national coordinator for the Campus Green Network at the time, and I attended the First International Young Greens Gathering in Stockholm. I took three months off so I could travel around Europe after the Gathering. While traveling and crashing on the floors of Young Greens, I stayed with City Parliamentarians in Sweden and Germany who were 21 and 22 years old. I learned how they became elected and what they were actually getting done as local representatives. These were folks with radical politics, not reformist liberals. Their actions impressed me, and I thought, "Wow, I bet I could do that in Arcata if I was on the city council." When I got back home, I paid a bit more attention to local politics. I became the student liaison to the city council while studying political science at Humboldt State University. I felt that the councilman who was my liaison didn't have any real politics or any creative ideas as to what to do to create a better community. I knew I could do a better job than he could so I decided to run.

P: Once you were elected, what most surprised you about the job?

J: One of the biggest surprises, and something that still amazes me, was the fear that people involved in local government have about trying to find new solutions to old problems. For example, in 1994, I asked folks in the Arcata City government what needed to be done to build a skate park for kids. The response I heard from everyone was, "That can't be done, the insurance costs too much." I was completely frustrated by this. My attitude was, "If we try hard enough, and our community supports it, we can do anything." Sure enough, the skate park construction is being completed just this week (early November) after three years of private fundraising efforts. There are many other examples, such as having a truly sustainable locally focused economy, shifting our priorities from planning for cars to planning for people, and trying to bring natural creeks back above ground all through the town. To counteract the skepticism, I have to go find examples of where these things have been done elsewhere before city staff and council members are willing to examine them.

One of the biggest surprises, and something that still amazes me, was the fear that people involved in local government have about trying to find new solutions to old problems.

P: Did you have a realistic picture of what you were getting yourself into?

J: Not exactly. First, I underestimated the time commitment. Other city council members told me the job would take roughly 15 hours per week, depending on whether there was a council meeting that week. I soon discovered that this estimate was only accurate for councilors who simply addressed issues as they came up. I like to go beyond that by defining a vision of my community and working towards that vision. In order to advance this goal I create a lot of projects for myself. For example, I want to see us take our public funds out of tobacco corporations, nuclear weapons contractors, or countries and corporations with bad human rights records. I want to reinvest those public funds in our community or in businesses that members of our community support. It's sad that we have over a trillion dollars worth of public moneys in this country supporting terrible institutions that ruin the planet and run roughshod over human rights. Our elected officials condone it and the public isn't even aware of it. If any community activists out there want their city to do anything slightly innovative or new they should be prepared for a serious time commitment to see their ideas come to fruition.

The lawsuit was status quo for how most government entities address anti-authoritarian activist groups, and cost the taxpayers of Arcata over $40,000.

I also have a new-found respect for some conservative church groups and service clubs like Rotary and the local Exchange Club, which raise serious amounts of money for the public good in Arcata.

P: It must be difficult for an idealistic Green like yourself to balance the mundane job of overseeing the day-to-day workings of Arcata with the grand visions and fantasies you must have which may not seem like politically realistic goals at this point. How do you deal with this inherent contradiction?

J: In 1990, I was listening in on the conversation of an older activist woman that I had a large amount of respect for, Caroline Estes. A young fellow asked her, "What can I do? I really want to create change for a better planet and to help people." Her reply to this searching activist was, "First, find a home. Take care of yourself. Become grounded and then you will find the direction you are looking for." Her words had a profound impact on me. At the time I was looking for a place to call home, and she helped me make the final decision to move to Arcata, which is probably the only place I'll ever be able to call home. Doing the "mundane" things on the city council are all a part of being a responsible community member, and I really enjoy those things.

P: So far, what two accomplishments as city councilor are you most proud of? And are they simply ideological in nature or grounded in the real needs of the people of this community?

J: Even though it's not a politically radical project I receive a great degree of satisfaction from completion of the skate park. This is because everyone told me it could never be done and we just set our minds to it and built it. I also am happy with how we resolved the Food Not Bombs dispute. Right after I was elected in 1994, our supposedly progressive city council voted 4 to 1 to sue Food Not Bombs for serving food without a permit on our central plaza, and at a time when the city wasn't offering any hot meals at all. I found this action disgusting and inhumane, not to mention being the worst possible way to resolve the dispute. The lawsuit was status quo for how most government entities address anti-authoritarian activist groups, and cost the taxpayers of Arcata over $40,000. The new city council has resolved the issue by donating the use of the community center kitchen and issuing free permits. This action has set a good example for future dispute resolution in our community. I think both examples are grounded in the real needs of our community, and at the same time both are ideologically groundbreaking in many ways.

P: You're beginning the final year of your four-year term. What are you feeling most driven to still accomplish?

J: I'd really like to see us begin to redirect our public money towards community needs and away from distant companies doing god-knows-what on another corner of the earth. We have so many places we could use it, such as low-income housing, or possibly for small business start up loans. It's odd that some city councils speak out against Wal-Marts because these "big box" stores drain profits out of a community, and then the same local governments send their entire investment portfolio out of town. We could also put some of our $7-9 million that we invest annually into socially responsible investments. It was the divestiture movement that helped to end apartheid in South Africa and I'd like to see us set a trend that demonstrates how local government can solve its own problems with its own local money.

It's odd that some city councils speak out against Wal-Marts ... and then the same local governments send their entire investment portfolio out of town.

P: I understand you recently received a small grant from the California Green Party to launch a Greening Cities Project. Why the focus on cities?

J: My strategy for achieving a better society is to implement change at the grassroots or community level. I don't think we are going to see much positive change coming out of the modern day nation-state or the entities that will most likely be replacing them in coming decades such as the World Trade Organization (WTO). Free trade agreements like the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) and free trade associations like the European Economic Community (EEC) will be eliminating the ability of the nation-state to fulfill its traditional role. This shift will leave a power void. I believe this void will be filled, at least in part, by municipal governments. From my experience gained on the Arcata City Council, and through networking with the Greens whom I've visited in 11 countries, I think we need to build a serious municipalist movement that begins to learn how to problem-solve locally and then work together to meet the needs of the greater society.

Municipal governments regularly give huge sums of money for large development projects even though the growth generally ends up costing the city more over time due to increased maintenance of infrastructure ...

P: What kind of work will you mostly be doing?

J: I am compiling a manual on how to get elected to local office, as well as editing a video of eight locally-elected greens from all over the country talking about what they have learned in office. I'm sending this information out to every local chapter in California and making it available to any other greens who want it. After this is done I'll be spending more time networking with green locals regarding municipal issues or campaigns they may be facing. I hope one day to have funds to create a really strong organization.

P: Could you briefly describe your vision for the green cities of the future?

J: Cities, regardless of population size, must be made up of small neighborhoods or communities in order to be cohesive enough to feel like true communities. For example, a future Los Angeles would have to be made up of hundreds of such communities. These communities would have a governance process consisting of a locally determined type of participatory democracy. This version of the world is not just around the corner, but I think it is pragmatic to begin working towards it now and not be apologetic for doing so.

P: Yes, but how do you realistically see cities transforming themselves from these monolithic centralized ecological dead-zones to, for example, an LA made up of hundreds of thriving participatory communities. Take me through the first few steps you envision, and how Green City Councils could-if indeed they could-make a difference in such a process.

J: Ask Lois Arkin in Los Angeles. Fifteen years ago she had the vision to create Eco-City LA. She and a small but hopeful group chose a two-block area near downtown LA for their project. They made drawings of what they hoped the neighborhood would look like one day. They've shown these plans all over and now own a large number of residences as well as a whole apartment complex. They transform ugly lots into community gardens. They create neighborhood spaces and plant trees. They involve local children and families in these projects. A small book by Paul Glover was written with a similar strategy in the late 80's also called Eco-City Los Angeles. Lois, myself, and eco-city leaders from Ithaca, Australia, and Berkeley all had a roundtable to talk about these ideas at Jerry Brown's "We the People" office last spring in Oakland.

A Green City Council can help by supporting projects such as these instead of giving away thousands of dollars worth of incentives to K-Mart's and mini-malls. Municipal governments regularly give huge sums of money for large development projects from their redevelopment funds, even though study after study shows that the growth generally ends up costing the city more over time due to increased maintenance of infrastructure like waste water treatment, roads, sewers, and policing. We need to reexamine the "benefits" of using public subsidies for capital improvements in these areas.

P: And finally, what do you realistically think Arcatans will most remember about your term of office 20 years from now?

J: It depends on how well the various projects I've worked on will pan out. I suppose I could be remembered for the bike lanes, the Free Bike Program, the Nicaraguan Sister-City Project, the Understanding Local Government workshops, or possibly the Jolly Giant Creek running through town or a domestic partnership policy. It remains to be seen what will become of Free Arcata Radio, a local monetary system, or a shift in the usage of our municipal reserve funds. It would be nice if all of these things would be successful here and then would spread to other communities. It would be fantastic if these small actions could be the beginnings of a community-based movement that was unstoppable.

Jason Kirkpatrick can be reached at 707-826-1688, POB 4796, Arcata, CA 95518, or jasonk@humboldt1.com

Paul Cienfuegos has been active in a variety of social change movements since the late 1970's. He has founded and directed organizations, edited an independent newspaper, and worked for Ancient Forest Protection, Native Sovereignty, Nuclear Disarmament and Ecological Restoration. Paul moved to Humboldt County (on the north coast of California) in 1995. He is the founding coordinator of Democracy Unlimited, a citizens' organization which educates and organizes to challenge corporate rule. He can be reached at POB 27, Arcata, CA 95518 or 707-822-2242 or cienfuegos@igc.org

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