Everywhere in Blue Lake, a tiny Humboldt County town nestled between redwood ridges on the Mad River, people had the same reaction when told theirs is the only all-female city council California.
“Wow, that’s amazing,” said Kate Martin, a Brooklyn native and owner of the town’s principal watering hole, the Logger Bar, which has eight vintage chain saws suspended from the ceiling. “I never really thought about that.”
“Woo-hoo,” said Lynne Owens, office manager of Blue Lake’s world-famous Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, which draws students from as far away as Zimbabwe, Greece, India and Israel.
“Hey, that’s great,” said Dell’Arte’s founding artistic director, Joan Schirle, leaning over the balcony of her loft office in the school’s surprisingly expansive building, which has a 116-seat theater with walls made of old-growth redwood planks.
“I am ecstatic to have an all-woman council in this time and age,” said Blue Lake Councilwoman Summer Daugherty, a project coordinator for the Humboldt County Resource Conservation District, which, among other things, helps dairies stay on the right side of environmental regulations. Last year, Daugherty was elected to a four-year council term, her first. “We’re excited and motivated.”
California has 482 cities. Only 72 of them have a majority of women on their councils, according to California Women Lead, a nonpartisan group dedicated to increasing the number of elected and appointed female public officials. Fifty-six have no councilwomen at all.
It’s not just the all-female city council that makes Blue Lake unusual. Blue Lake’s city manager, Amanda Mager, is a woman. So is the town clerk.
“We have some amazing guys who do stuff like fix pipes,” said Blue Lake City Clerk April Sousa, as she set out folding chairs for Tuesday evening’s council meeting. “The city attorney is a man.”
No one was willing to come right out and say things work better with women in charge.
“It’s very relaxed, which is nice,” said Councilwoman Bobbi Ricca, who is a retired Dell’Arte school administrator. “Women just know how to work together in a way that men probably don’t.”
Among the town’s pressing issues: how to slow down the big trucks that whip through town to get to gravel quarries on the Mad River, controlling noise and pollution from the local power plant, luring high-quality business to the local industrial park. And of course, public safety.
The most serious scandal to rock Blue Lake was the result, in my humble opinion, of testosterone poisoning.
In 2008, the Blue Lake police chief was charged with eight felonies, including possessing a machine gun and silencer, and drugging his wife for sex. The spousal rape charge was dropped, but a jury found him guilty of two gun-related felonies, later overturned on appeal. The police department, which had 31 submachine guns, was disbanded, and the town now contracts its policing with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department. Now, instead of four officers and a chief, Blue Lake is patrolled by a deputy sheriff and a half.
“We don’t have as much coverage as we need,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Mackay, who was appointed in June after the only male council member resigned his position to spend more time with his family.
People sometimes say, not without reason, that Humboldt County is “behind the Redwood Curtain.” That’s because it’s not especially easy to get to. Flying into the Arcata-Eureka Airport is ridiculously expensive. That usually leaves driving, from the Bay Area, which takes more than five hours, or perhaps Santa Rosa, which takes about three.
The relative remoteness of Humboldt County made it a choice growing region for outlaw cannabis farmers, which helped revitalize an economy that had fallen on hard times as logging companies and mills went out of business.
“Around here, anyone with a storefront benefits from cannabis,” said Martin, who holds monthly “Think and Drink” events at the Logger Bar as a countermeasure to the politics of President Trump. (Recent guest speakers have come from Planned Parenthood, the Green Party, the ACLU. Not all her clientele, many of them retired loggers, appreciate the curriculum.)
I assumed that Blue Lake, which has a new industrial park at the edge of town, would open its arms to the cannabis trade, which will be legal for adult recreational users in January.
The town, it turns out, is not interested. Maybe that has something to do with the city’s nickname “Booze Lake.” Blue Lake is far more interested in encouraging cottage industries that revolve around food and drink.
Tuesday night, the City Council directed its attorney to draft an ordinance that will keep commercial cannabis businesses out of the city, but will comport with the part of the new state law that allows every adult to grow up to six plants at home.
Wednesday morning, I decided to tool around Blue Lake. How much could there be to see? The town is all of one square mile.
In front of City Hall, I bumped into Councilwoman Jean Lynch, a retired accountant. She offered a tour, so I hopped into her SUV, which had two huge carrots in the front console where someone else might keep a Mocha Frappuccino. (There are no Starbucks in Blue Lake. Also, no stoplight, movie theater, medical clinic or cannabis dispensary.)
Our first stop was the Dell’Arte school, pretty much the last thing I was expecting to find in a town of 1,200. The school offers a master of fine arts as well as undergraduate courses, and produces theatrical events throughout the year. (The former police chief alienated many Blue Lakers when he decided the theater’s summer festival was a public safety nuisance.)
We visited the town’s small industrial park, which is home to the Mad River Brewing Co., maker of first-rate craft beer, a smoked fish manufacturer and a tomato sauce company. It is also the home of the fledgling Jewell Distillery, owned by Michael and Barbara Jewell. Their craft spirits include moonshine, gin and an assortment of eaux de vie.
I ended the day at Logger Bar, where Martin was setting up for the evening. When she bought the bar five years ago, the entire town pitched in to remodel it. The name of everyone who helped is listed on a wall next to the front door under the words “It takes a village to raise a bar.”
As we sat at the bar, chatting before her 6 p.m. opening time, Martin told me she has three rules: “No dogs. No kids. But you can take off your shirt if you’re a good-looking man.”
No question, the ladies are in charge.