UKIAH — You know the presidential race? All those Republican candidates crowding the stage during the primary season? All those third-party candidates still toiling grimly along? The race that’s causing heartache and soul-searching all across the nation. Meanwhile, in Ukiah, the race for city council has been practically ignored, with both incumbents running uncontested. Yet the actions of city officials, in some ways, have a much more direct impact on our lives than that of the president.
Two seats are open, and two incumbents are running uncontested: 74-year-old Douglas Crane, who has been on the council since 2004, and 65-year-old Stephen Scalmanini, who has served since 2013.[footnote]The Ukiah City Council is elected at-large, meaning that there are no districts, and the candidates all compete directly with each other on the same ballot.[/footnote] Crane, CEO of the family-owned construction company Crane of Ukiah, favors economic development and a balanced budget. Scalmanini, a former manufacturing engineer, wants economic impact studies on large proposed developments and reminds voters of his work on behalf of the environment.
Ukiah city council terms are four years, with staggered elections for different seats, every two years. The races in 2004, 2006, and 2014 were hotly contested, while in 2008 and 2012, only the incumbents, Mari Rodin and Crane, signed up for the race. When Rodin left the county a year later, Scalmanini was the only candidate willing to run for her seat.
To find out a little bit about life on the council, and why so few seem to want anything to do with it, the Mendocino Voice caught up with 74-year-old former council member Benj Thomas, who served from 2006-2014, after a two-year stint on the Grand Jury “whetted my appetite for social issues,” as he put it. Thomas, who serves on the board of KZYX and is active in Healthy Mendocino’s efforts to solve Ukiah’s housing crisis, can be seen on Saturday mornings at the farmers market off of Alex Thomas Plaza, chatting with the many people he’s come to know in his many years as a Ukiah local.
“I have a lamentably high tolerance for meetings,” he remarked, explaining that this and a practical rather than a theoretical approach to politics are essential for those in city government. In addition to attending meetings for ad hoc committees, standing committees, and the boards of various agencies, Thomas recalled that if the city council meeting ended at 9pm, “that was a good night.” The sheer number of meetings, he reflected, could be a deterrent to those who might be considering a run at the council and lack the previously noted high tolerance.
The former councilman ventured the possibility that “there are not a lot of people who spend time studying civic matters;” and noted that many of those who do have a willingness to get engaged “have a specific issue or stance, but are not interested in doing the rest of it.” He does not believe that information about what local government is doing is widely available, though he did concede that it might be up to the elected officials to do a better job of defining the rewards of their service.
While Thomas acknowledged “a sense of helplessness, that one’s ability to have a major impact is limited,” he asserted that the city government can take credit for several accomplishments, among them the work of the parks and recreation department, and the city utilities, which are independent of PG&E and include a variety of renewable energy sources. The reason for his stepping down at the end of his term in 2014, he said simply, was that “I got older. It was not disgruntlement — not saying, take this job and shove it.”
As rewarding or grueling as the job may be, “Somebody’s gotta do it,” he reasoned. “If people don’t run, we have a serious problem.”