Pioneering California Green Officeholder to Step Down After Twelve Years
By Mike Feinstein, Santa Monica
It seems like just yesterday that Bob Ornelas was first running for City Council.
It was the spring of 1990 and the Northern Calfornia town of Arcata was quickly gentrifying, a result of people moving up from the Bay Area and Southern California
"I was worried about a yuppie takeover," recalls Ornelas today. "As a low-income person I insisted and demanded that people like me be represented on the council."
Elected in April, Ornelas becamse the first California Green (and the third in the U.S.) ever elected to a City Council. Fourteen years and three successful elections later, Ornelas has decided not to run again.
"I started out with many goals, and I achieved an incredible number of them along with the help of many progressive councilmembers, active citizens and very hard-working intelligent folks at City Hall," Ornelas said.
"I have no regrets. Hell, I was even recently 'sainted' by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence for my support of the Gay and Lesbian community during all my years in office. That's something to be proud of - Saint Bob"
Ornelas was successful in preserving many of Arcata's greenbelt wetlands, while pushing for sustainable forest management and acquiring additional forestlands adjacent to the city. He and his wide Susan also helped Arcata create its first organic educational community farm.
But Ornelas is equally proud of accomplishments that don't fit into a Green stereotype like helping create Arcata's First-Time Home Buyers Program, and a multi-services center for very low income and street people. Ornelas also supported local small business through grant and low-interest loan programs, and secured city employees a meaningful benefits package.
Twice he was selected Mayor by his Council colleagues, from 1999-2000 and 2002-2004. Ornelas also served on the Humboldt County Association of Governments and chaired the Humboldt Transit Authority.
Known for his candor and impulsiveness, Ornelas excited and exacerbated Arcatans. Supporters praised his record, while opponents called him irreverent and confrontational.
Ornelas' response? "Politicians rarely say what they are thinking. I believe in speaking my mind. I don't hide the type of person I am, nor the experiences that have helped shape me.
"But what everyone must know, is that I have nearly always made my decisions after long and careful consideration. In that, I have fulfilled the oath to the people I was elected to serve."
A carpenter/handyman and former owner of the Mad River Brewery down the road in Blue Lake, Ornelas first came to Arcata in 1979. He graduated from local Humboldt State University in 1982 with a degree in natural resources, then spent two years in Liberia as a member of the Peace Corps.
Leaving the Corps, Ornelas went to the Caribbean for three months. Returning to the city with $38 in his pocket, he found a job at the Arcata Community Recycling Center and worked there until he joined the Council.
Completing his first four-year term, Ornelas grew frustrated by the need to compromise and surprised voters by choosing not to run again. Instead he threw his support behind fellow Green Jason Kirkpatrick (then 26), who was elected to the Council in his place.
After a two year rest, Ornelas ran again, along with fellow Green Jennifer Hanan. Both were elected, joining Kirkpatrick to form the first Green Party city council majority in U.S. history. Over the next two years, the three received national and sometimes global attention, providing an exceptional opportunity to publicize Green approaches to governing.
For Ornelas, the experience was both fruitful and bittersweet. "We started out with a bang, then realized we didn't work that well together."
"We were three different, idealistic people, all who were elected to represent the entire community of Arcata. We often found that we had divergent views on how to do that and sometimes that clashed with the expectations of what we'd do as Greens."
Both Kirkpatrick and Hanan stepped down when their terms ended, and no new Green joined Ornelas until Dave Meserve was elected in 2002.
Meserve and Ornelas worked well together on national issues, like Arcata becoming one of the first U.S. cities to oppose the Patriot Act, and even calling for the impeachment of President Bush.
With Meserve in office at least through 2006, Arcata will have at least one Green on its City Council for 16 straight years -- the longest streak in the U.S., tied with the Douglas County (WI) Board of Supervisors.
Once out of office, Ornelas plans to stay active politically, especially on pedestrian-bike, affordable housing and land management issues. An avid cyclist, he would also like to tour Europe on bike, and said there's a lot of reading to catch up on.
"Something's wrong when you get too tired to read," he said. "You can get really tired of meetings. I need a couple of years of rest."
Then what? Bob has bounced back from a rest before. This time he's toying with running for Humboldt County supervisor.
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