Lessons learned by Arcata's former mayor Susan Ornelas

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Sunday, January 1 2012


Susan Ornelas

Susan Ornelas stepped down as Mayor of Arcata, California, recently.  Her husband, former mayor Bob Ornelas, was seriously injured in a cycling accident a month earlier (in November 2011), and the following email was in response to our best wishes for his speedy recovery.  When we asked Susan's permission to share it with the Switzer Network she wrote: "Yes!  One of the things I love the most about being involved with the Switzer Foundation is the network of wonderful people, where so many people are both soulful and scientific.  Where we can use data to demonstrate truths, but where art and story are heralded also, for expressing truth in a way that many people can really get - they can feel and know it.  Art and science are more connected than we may have previously acknowledged, and I am glad of it!" 

We offer you her thoughts during this time of reflection on the past year and planning for the upcoming one, as a reminder of the power of love and compassion in our daily lives:

Today I passed the torch to a fellow Councilman.  The mayorship is voted on each year, and when I realized how difficult it would be to continue in the position, while also being primary caretaker to my husband for the next few months - I was happy to pass it on to another Council person.  I am still on the City Council, just not mayor next year.

I have tried to bring to the Council the idea that we really are acting as a team, and so thus individually we should check our egos at the door, and really solve problems for the people with the greatest good in mind.  The teamwork concept helped me to step down from the mayor position.  Makes for pretty good civil policy, too.

You know, one of the greatest accomplishments I feel I made as mayor was not reported on in the news.  It was during the local 'Occupy' effort, where City Hall became the camping ground for the local homeless population and political activists who want to see change in this country.  As a Council, we agreed with the Occupy Wall Street concepts (we even made a public statement of support) but the scene at City Hall was becoming untenable.

Anyway, the Arcata police chief and I saw eye-to-eye on the situation, and decided to approach it with love and understanding.  Yeah, we actually had that discussion. He was going into the crowd and listening to the people, making alliances I would say.  I meditated for a period of time on love and compassion, and then approached them asking them to see the dignity in them peaceably disassembling.  We discussed how the police are part of the 99% also, and they didn't want to come in and disturb the protesters (particularly in the middle of the night, which our police chief said really WAS the best time, as people are more compliant).  Well we did this for about a week.  Him listening to them, curbing the illegal behavior (drug use, etc) and me seeding them with the idea of honor for all of us involved in the peaceable dis-assembly of camping.  The amazing thing for me, Lissa, is that it worked!  We had a Council meeting where the police chief stated there were health issues with the camping, and it was stated that something needed to be done.  The next day, the campers chose to take the camp apart, voluntarily!  The City staff helped them take apart the tents, in a reasonable friendly manner, and we pulled a City truck up to take away garbage.

Life is eternally amazing.  With my husband's accident, we are reminded of the vulnerability of all living beings.  All situations can change. Knowledge of this helps me to be honest, to be vulnerable, and to ask more of myself and others in terms of what we can do in this world.

The challenge gives one a reason to get up in the morning, because who knows what this day will bring?

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