In just over a month, Humboldt County’s 1st District voters will decide who will represent them on the Board of Supervisors.
In interviews with the Times-Standard, incumbent Rex Bohn and challenger Cliff Berkowitz discussed where they stand on key issues, including the county’s burgeoning cannabis industry; its energy infrastructure amid climate change; and homelessness. They also discussed the election’s general outlook.
Bohn, who has served since 2012 and ran unopposed in 2016, has pushed a familiar slogan in this year’s campaign: “Humboldt County is open for business.” Berkowitz, a former DJ on the radio station KHUM, has criticized what he calls inactivity on the Board of Supervisors with regard to land use and long-term planning.
Cannabis: Rex Bohn’s time on the board has overlapped with the rise of legal cannabis in California. He has worked with other supervisors to introduce two legal ordinances to regulate the crop, though some growers say the complexity and expensiveness of the laws have crippled the commercial market and bolstered illicit grows.
Over the next four years, Bohn said, he would like to see clean water, solar energy-use and “best practices” be incentivized in state and local pot laws.
“The other thing is helping the small farmers,” Bohn said. “Through the (Project) Trellis program, we’re giving out micro-grants for our smallest farmers. The committee to decide those grants actually has applications in hand right now.”
Bohn said he’s proud of how the county switched to retroactive billing instead of charging growers out the gate, and said he wants to see more outside, full-sun grows permitted over the next four years.
Climate change and energy use: During the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s power shutoffs late last year, Bohn and Sheriff William Honsal sent a letter to the utility demanding answers.
Bohn said he will meet with PG&E’s CEO in March — “We put a wish list with things we’d like to see” — to discuss backloading the power grid.
The county has pledged to go fully renewable by 2025, but the supervisors in December decided not to go forward with a plan to adopt wind turbines on the Bear River and Monument ridges above Scotia. Bohn voted in favor of the project, which would have been built on land considered sacred to the Wiyot Tribe.
“We need to make sure our biomass plants keep running,” Bohn said of his strategy for renewable energy. “They also complement our timber industry… I hope we are wrong but I don’t see offshore wind happening for another 10 years.”
Homelessness: At forums and debates so far, Bohn has touted his work with philanthropist Betty Kwan Chinn in securing local homeless shelters and resources.
Bohn addressed concerns from local homeless advocate Vernon Price, who has cited hang-ups in his encounters with county officials, including the Department of Health and Human Services.
“In the last three years, DHHS has housed over 175 people,” Bohn said. “These are some of our most challenging homeless residents with severe mental illnesses … but I always say, just because we’re the only place to get (resources), we shouldn’t act like it.”
In a handful of forums and debates, Berkowitz has relied on road repairs and impending sea level rise as his primary talking points.
He has also said that progress on the current Board of Supervisors has been slow, and that the county needs to think differently about key issues.
Cannabis: Berkowitz advocates “rebuilding” the county’s commercial cannabis industry — a full do-over of laws that he said have made it “virtually impossible” for small growers to become compliant.
“The process was flawed from the get-go,” Berkowitz said. “This is an agricultural product; we need to get people permitted and into compliance.”
Berkowitz said he was not familiar with Project Trellis, the multi-pronged system by which Humboldt County re-injects cannabis tax revenue into the industry to boost small growers. But he said the effort is a great start.
Right away in his term, the candidate wants to adopt appellations for local cannabis — a process that affords homegrown cannabis a “Humboldt County” brand.
“We’ve got a lifetime of goodwill built up with (our brand),” he said. “We’ve got to make that part of our county’s cannabis industry.”
Climate change and energy: Berkowitz strongly opposed the Terra-Gen wind energy project, saying in his interview the county needs to move away from “large, industrial” energy infrastructure.
“I think that’s the wrong model for us to be looking at for Humboldt County,” Berkowitz said of one-stop solutions for renewable energy. “We absolutely need a mixed-use approach.”
He suggested that PG&E should become a public utility, but said he prefers the county become energy-independent. But he also says not all renewable energy solutions are the same.
“Biomass is not clean energy; the fact is, it pollutes quite a bit as well,” Berkowitz said. He added that the solar microgrid on his own rooftop provides his entire personal energy supply.
Homelessness: “My opponent likes to jump up and down and talk about being good friends with Betty Chinn,” Berkowitz said of Bohn’s frequent citing of a housing track record.
“Betty Chinn should be applauded and has done great work,” he added. “But she’s just one person. We, as a county, can adopt a housing on a much bigger scale, one that has worked in other communities.”
Building “private-public” partnerships, he said, will ultimately augment the work of private individuals in finding housing.
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.