By Stephanie McGeary
Paul Pitino came to Arcata with no plan. He had no job, no money and he didn’t know anyone in town. He also had no idea that someday he would run for and be elected to Arcata’s City Council and eventually serve as mayor.
In addition to being a public servant, Pitino, 70, works as a private landscaper. City government does not pay well, according to Pitino, and even when he was mayor he had to cut people’s lawns on the weekends. Many people found it humorous to have the mayor mowing their lawn. But he didn’t mind.
“It reminds me of my place in society,” Pitino said.
Pitino is a hard man to miss, with his grey hair and beard, often wearing work clothes and a wide-brimmed fedora and almost always wearing a friendly smile. His colorful character is complimented by his bright red and purple house, with his bumper-sticker covered truck parked out front.
Originally hailing from Los Angeles, Pitino landed in Arcata in 1993. As a divorced parent of three boys, he was searching for a safe environment where he could raise his family. He had no prior experience with the Arcata, but knew that he wanted a smaller town with a university.
On his hunt he camped at Patrick’s Point campground in Trinidad for a few days, while he visited the town of Arcata. He knew that this could be the right fit.
Relocating was a struggle, to say the least. When Pitino and his boys came into town, they had to hit the ground running. They moved here on a Friday and the boys had to start school on Monday. Pitino didn’t have a job yet. For a couple of days they didn’t even have electricity or hot water.
Pitino took his first job on a farm in Blue Lake. He was working for minimum wage and it was hardly enough to make ends meet. But before too long, he landed a substitute teaching job at Pacific Union Elementary School.
It was during his time teaching at Pacific Union that Pitino began his first act of civic engagement. He noticed a dangerous curve on Spear Avenue, with no sidewalk, where students had to walk to get to school. He began advocating for the city of Arcata to build a sidewalk there. With a great deal of persistence, Pitino finally got the city to make the change.
In 1997 Pitino began serving on the City of Arcata Transportation Safety Committee and was first elected to city council in 2004. Pitino thought he was accessible and well-known enough to be elected and he was right.
Local citizen, Bradley Thompson recalls when Pitino ran for the council. Thompson said that he voted for Pitino because of a quirky answer he gave to a question during the local debate.
“They asked the candidates where they got their information and all the other candidates listed news sources. The New York Times, The Wallstreet Journal,” Thompson said. “Paul said, ‘From talking to people.’ I knew right then that he had my vote.”
Pitino has a passion for community activism and serving in city government is a way for him to continue to improve the quality of life for the people of Arcata.
“I always ask myself, what can I do?” said Pitino. “Who can I help?”
The answer to this question was clear for Pitino, who has focused a great deal of his energy on the groups who struggle the most in this community: low-income students, seniors and the homeless.
Pitino has advocated for these groups through many projects and collaborations including his work with the Lazy J Homeowners Association to help secure rent-stabilization for seniors in mobile homes.
Maintaining affordable housing in Arcata is an important issue to Pitino and one that comes with a great deal of struggle.
One of the problems with our local government, according to Pitino, is that they are not necessarily representative of the population of the town. Many of them are older, wealthier, established and conservative. In Arcata at least 60% of the population rent. But most of the city council members are property owners.
“Rent control is scary to property owners,” said Pitino. “But it’s a needed thing in a country where money and housing are controlled by a small number of people.”
Another housing-related issue that is important to Pitino is finding low-cost solutions for the homeless crisis in Arcata. There are no homeless shelters in Arcata and Pitino is concerned that the services available for the homeless have gone down year by year.
Pitino researched solutions of other cities and found Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon. He proposed that Arcata follow a similar guideline and provide a space on city property for tent, vehicle and alternative-structure camping for the homeless.
Some people don’t see this idea as a permanent solution, however. So it has been difficult for Pitino to get the support from city council that he needs.
It takes a long time to gain support and get projects done. But Pitino is nothing if not persistent. When he ran for city council in 2004 his platform included the idea to build a public restroom in downtown Arcata. Pitino advocated for the project until it was completed in 2014.
The renovation of small, local parks is another issue Pitino is passionate about. In 2005 he began promoting the renovation of his neighborhood. The remodeling of Rotary Park was completed 10 years later.
Though things don’t always move quickly, overall, Pitino said he is happy with the work he has completed in city government.
His hard work is never done, however, and Pitino still has big plans for Arcata’s future including a campground in town for touring bicyclists and a premier destination dog park.
Both the campground and dog park are things Pitino sees as missing amenities in Arcata, which could help bring in money from tourism. The destination dog park is a project Pitino has been advocating for years. Although he is not a dog-owner himself, Pitino believes that Arcata needs an off-leash area for dogs, something that does not currently exist within city limits.
One of the reasons Pitino continues his hard work at the age of 70 is to encourage others, especially young people, that making change is possible. For all the young people out there who are interested in being involved in local government, Pitino’s advice is to find one thing that needs to change, however small, and keep working on it until it’s done.
“Pick something and don’t give up on it,” Pitino said. “If it was easy it would already be done. The ‘P’ in public service is for persistence.”