Arcata council hears plans, fields comments

ARCATA – The city council last week renewed its annual goals, elected a replacement vice mayor and plunged deep into perhaps the wonkiest and most stupefyingly complex of planning documents, the Local Coast Program (LCP).

Still short-staffed but gradually rebuilding from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city is also working with a four-person council until a fifth member is elected in June.

A new tax which could support housing programs gained initial discussion. City Manager Karen Diemer reminded the council that two of the city’s key taxes, both of which pay into the General Fund, are set to expire in 2024.

One is the Utility Users Tax, a 3 percent tax on electricity, gas, telecommunications, water and sewer services, which brings in about $900,000 per years. The other is the Excessive Electricity Tax, a 45 percent tax on electricity use over 600 percent of baseline.

City Ciuncilmember Brett Watson.

Both taxes could be placed on the ballot for renewal this year, or in 2024. If passed this year, that would clear the decks for possible introduction of a new ballot measure in two years. A housing-specific tax would require two-thirds majority approval by voters, while a tax whose proceeds go to the General Fund could pass by a simple majority.

Councilmember Sarah Schaefer liked that idea. but Councilmember Meredith Matthews was skeptical. Matthews then recused herself from the electricity tax discussion, being an administrator with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority. Mayor Stacy Atkins-Salazar and Councilmember Brett Watson liked the idea of getting a decision on the two existing taxes from the people this year.

The council seemed open to Valley West improvements, and is awaiting findings from the area’s Participatory Budgeting process, now underway (see page 5). Councilmembers also praised the work of Arcata Main Street, presently rebuilding its board and budget. Matthews said the group has done “an incredible job,” promoting business despite COVID and other obstacles.

The council also expressed support for the Gateway Area Plan (GAP) process. Schaefer asked that the public engagement process be added to council priority projects. “We can create a code that really points development the right way and says, ‘This is what we as a community want’,” Schaefer said.

A public suggestion that the GAP be changed to a specific plan was followed up on by Councilmember Brett Watson, who said it would offer “a lot more flexibility.” He said the GAP could be a standalone plan separate from the General Plan. Community Development Director David Loya explained that specific plans are “a lot more restrictive,” with make-or-break time frames and milestones. But Loya said he the matter could be discussed before the Planning Commission.

Schaefer called for closer city and community ties with Cal Poly Humboldt, including collaborations on community projects and regular public presentations.

Watson asked that city meeting minutes and recordings be retained longer than the present two years to five years, so as to allow more detailed research and understanding of the historical record, especially when long-term projects are being considered. Atkins-Salazar and Schaefer liked the idea for its transparency.

A suggestion by Matthews to improve relations with local Indian tribes, and add Wiyot land acknowledgment to city meetings, was well received. So was an observation by Watson that local smoke shops sell disposable, battery powered vape pens whose sale should be banned.

The next night, the council’s regular meeting was conducted as a “hybrid” meeting, both online and with restored public participation at City Hall.

Among the items Watson wanted clarity on was the council’s proposed rejection of the “Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act.” The ballot measure is opposed by the League of California Cities on grounds that, according to a staff report, it “creates harmful barriers for local governments and voters who should have a voice. Essentially the measure would establish new and stricter rules for raising taxes and fees, limit the authority of voters, and weaken the ability of government to hold violators of state and local laws accountable.” It could also, said the league, cut local government revenue.

Calling in with support for the measure were Kent Sawatsky and Uri Driscoll, both associated with the shadowy Humboldt Taxpayers League, whose board composition and meetings aren’t publicized. Their support was based on what they said was increased public control over taxation.

But Atkins-Salazar called out the so-called Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act as being in the grand tradition of deceptively named ballot measures. “Sometimes the way things are labeled aren’t reflective of the true spirit of what’s in there,” she said. The council went on to oppose the measure by a unanimous 4–0 vote.

Sawatsky and Driscoll – neither of them Arcata residents – were to dominate phone-in comments, each calling in multiple times. Sawatsky offered a number of cautions and admonitions about city procedures, suggestions of incompetence on the part of councilmembers and staff, predictions of costly and crippling litigation against the City of Arcata due to its “dysfunction,” accusations of withholding information from the public and praise for Watson’s inquiries. Sawatsky was to make nine comments on a range of matters, totaling 17 1/2 minutes of the nearly four-hour meeting. Driscoll’s three comments consumed more than seven minutes.

According to a staff report, the current LCP includes the Local Coastal Element of the General Plan, adopted in 1989, and the Land Use and Development Guide, “substantively” adopted in 1998. Adoption of a comprehensive update is a council priority projects and goal.

The LCP establishes local land use regulation in the Coastal Zone. Loya explained the mind-numbing intricacies of the LCP, its multiple jurisdictions and technical requirements. He said he has been working on the LCP throughout his career at the City of Arcata.

The LCP will be extensively considered in numerous public fora this year, including the Planning Commission, with hopes that it will be adopted by the Planco and the council about mid-year and approved by the Coastal Commission early next year.

Also, Councilmember Sarah Schaefer was unanimously selected as Arcata’s new vice mayor, replacing the resigned Emily Grace Goldstein in that role until December, when new council assignments are decided.

Watson continued his enhanced scrutiny of council business, asking staff for lengthy and detailed explanations of several items. Watson recently disclosed that he suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder, which makes it difficult for him to understand printed material. He complained again that he hadn’t been given adequate access to staff to gain full comprehension on things he was to vote on, and at one point accused other councilmembers of being “upset” with him for asking questions. Watson remains the subject of an internal city investigation over an allegation of misconduct, details of which remain undisclosed.

Asked about the alleged lack of staff access, City Attorney Nancy Diamond stated, “Brett continues to have access to City staff in a manner that allows him to fulfill his responsibilities as a City Councilmember. It is consistent with the special protocols adopted by the City Council for the duration of the investigation, which protects potential victims and witnesses from interactions similar to if he were a City staff employee placed on administrative leave. It is also consistent with the City Council Protocol Manual Chapter 7 which, from a practical perspective, ensures that all City Council members have access to the same background information and provides minimal disruption of City staff work schedules.”