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Debate Is 'Remote' in Bolinas

September 28, 2003|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

BOLINAS, Calif. — The turning point for this quirky little Marin County beach town can be traced to a 1971 recall vote in which elected officials were removed from the local utility district and replaced with a quasi-revolutionary board.

The result was a radical no-growth policy that froze the Bolinas population in its tracks at about 1,300 and steadily raised the market value of a water permit here to a staggering $265,000 -- the amount paid at a recent auction.

With that kind of historical backdrop, you might think the pending California gubernatorial recall election would stir more interest here in the frontier land of direct democracy. But as usual in Bolinas, as well as in many other much more typical California small towns, local issues dominate the debates at the cafe tables and bar stools.

Fog-shrouded coastal towns like Bolinas, separated from inland California by rugged geography and maverick mentality, feel sequestered from the greater California debate.

"Sacramento tends to be pretty remote from Bolinas all the time," said Burr Henneman, a marine environmentalist with the Bolinas-based Commonweal Ocean Policy Program. "There's a lot of people who feel that what happens in Sacramento doesn't affect Bolinas, no matter who is there." The possible delay of the recall vote until March, said Henneman, had only added to the Bolinas electorate's ennui.

"Really, it's been a disappointment," said David Liebenstein, the 44-year-old military veteran who owns the Coast Cafe here. "We had more discussion about 'Jihad Johnny' -- Johnny Walker Lindh." Lindh was the local Marin County Muslim convert, dubbed by the cable news networks as the "American Taliban," who was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Bolinas' hottest flap these days is a controversial new sign that Liebenstein has installed on the roof of his restaurant. The sign says: "Coast Cafe. Think Globally, Eat Locally," but Bolinians, as the folks here are called, are not fond of signs bringing attention to their burg.

After decades in which local activists systematically removed direction signs to Bolinas on nearby California 1, Caltrans finally just gave up putting them there. To get to Bolinas, a collection of clapboard houses and shops nestled on a peninsula about 30 miles north of San Francisco, you have to know where you are going when you set out.

Another issue of modest local concern is something called Measure G, a stream-of-consciousness initiative that was placed on the ballot by Bolinas resident Jane Bethen. Bethen is a local character who wears burlap undergarments and crowns made from bark, newspapers and palm fronds.

Beloved by the townspeople, she is sometimes difficult to decipher.

"Vote for Bolinas to be a socially acknowledged nature-loving town," says her free-verse ballot petition, "because to like to drink the water out of the lakes, to like to eat the blueberries, to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motor boats."

Bethen, who sometimes uses the pseudonym Dakar, gathered 263 signatures from the town's 1,000 registered voters for the measure, which concludes, "Temporary and way to save life, skunks and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful."

The Measure G initiative, set for the Nov. 4 ballot, targets the Bolinas Community Public Utility District.

But not even utility manager Philip Buchanan, a former rock-station disc jockey, knows exactly how.

"It seems to be saying, 'Let's all get along,' " said Buchanan, who has been with the utility district for 23 years and presents a leery, long-suffering persona to visiting reporters. "The crux seems to be about airplanes."

For her part, Bethen concedes that some of the language has to do with her childhood in Minnesota, which at least explains the blueberries, which are not native to coastal California.

The fact that the issue finds itself before the Bolinas Community Public Utility District is no surprise. Practically everything of importance in Bolinas does. Liebenstein's Coast Cafe signage problem, for example, was the featured event of a meeting earlier this month that lasted until 11:30 p.m. That the Gray Davis recall election has so far not been discussed is itself a telling statement about the lack of interest it holds for Bolinians.

After its success in the 1971 recall election, the five-member Bolinas utility district quickly established itself as the town's most powerful local institution and principal public forum. Because the community is unincorporated, there is no mayor or city council. So the utility district has taken on many of those functions, including acting as a target for letting off steam or making political points.

Buchanan has seen the utility district board adopt an El Salvadoran sister city and declare a nuclear-free zone.

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