Conflicted council clashes as Ornelas offers ballot measure that mayor calls a ‘Trojan Horse’
Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The metal plaque advertising the Jacoby Building as Historical landmark No. 783 no longer misinforms or offends passersby on the Plaza. Condemned over its crude characterization of events during Arcata’s settlement era as “Indian troubles,” the plaque, installed June 8, 1963, was removed early Tuesday morning, March 6, by a crew from Arcata’s Public Works department.
Streets Supervisor Scott Lackey and his workers used a chipping hammer to separate the brass alloy plaque from the large granite rock to which it had been affixed with bolts and epoxy.
Concerns about damaging the plaque led some to suggest it should be removed rock and all, but those fears proved groundless, as it separated from its longtime mount intact. The plaque was later turned over to the owners of Jacoby’s Storehouse for possible eventual display as a historical relic.
A faint outline of the plaque remains on the large granite rock at Eighth and H streets. A replacement plaque is in the works, with wording that will be developed by the city and local Indian tribes.
- HISTORIC LANDMARKS COMMITTEE Arcata’s Historic Landmarks Committee meets Thursday, March 15 at 4 p.m. in Council Chamber at Arcata City Hall, 736 F St. Agenda items include establishment of a subcommittee to work with others on wording for the replacement historic landmark plaque for the Jacoby Building; an update on the Design Review Ordinance; discussion of National Historic Preservation Month; and more.
Native Americans and others concerned with historical accuracy had objected to the plaque’s flippant characterization of the mass killings and destruction committed against the area’s indigenous peoples, and their resistance, as “Indian troubles.”
The long-sought removal of the plaque did little to cool the heated controversy over the statue of President William McKinley on the Plaza.
While the City Council’s Feb. 21 4–1 decision to remove the statue remains in place, the council moved at its meeting last week to disuss a ballot measure that could offer Arcata voters a say in the statue’s destiny. One option is keeping it where it is.
During the late Council and Staff Reports section of the meeting, City Councilmember Susan Ornelas proposed that the McKinley statue’s fate be put to a public vote. The suggestion opens the door to an advisory ballot measure or mail-in ballot on which Arcata voters could effectively affirm or override the council’s recent decision to have the statue removed.
Ornelas asked her fellow councilmembers whether they wished to agendize discussing “some type of voting system” on the matter. In a straw poll, Councilmembers Brett Watson and Michael Winkler immediately agreed, forming a council majority.
Ornelas defended the council’s Feb. 21 decision as “representative democracy,” and one arrived at after thoughtful consideration. But she said she had heard from frustrated citizens who felt that the council “didn’t serve democracy.”
“People want to be heard,” she said. “This is a big issue.”
Councilmember Paul Pitino, a staunch McKinley foe, opposed reconsideration. “Just so you know, no,” he said flatly.
Mayor Sofia Pereira agreed to agendize the matter. “The fun continues,” she said, in a sardonic tone.
City Manager Karen Diemer said she will bring an agenda item forward, but that she hadn’t heard any instruction to include language rescinding the council’s 4–1 vote to remove the statue.
“That was was not my intent, and I don’t intend to promote that tonight,” Ornelas said.
She advocated for a “multi-tiered education program” for better appreciating local history.
Ornelas likened re-examining the statue matter to the study of alternatives for the Plaza center which would be done anyway in the project’s Environmental Impact Report.
‘I support an advisory vote’
In a memorandum to her fellow councilmembers titled “The McKinley Statue – a suggestion by Susan Ornelas,” she states that “Citizens want to have their opinion be heard. Can we put something like the following on the ballot to an advisory vote?”
States Ornelas’s draft ballot language, “The Arcata City Council voted to remove the McKinley Statue from the Plaza center. Where would you like to see this historic statue?”
The multiple-choice ballot includes possible destinations of the Arcata Veterans Hall, a corner of the Plaza, Phillips House Museum, the Plaza center, a local history museum such as Fort Humboldt, the McKinley Museum in Canton, Ohio, McKinleyville and “other” with a write-in choice.
The suggested ballot language would certainly be further shaped and refined by city staff and the council before appearing on the ballot.
States Ornelas, “A vote like this will give the Council a more nuanced understanding of the intent of the citizens of Arcata regarding the statue… I think it is fair to let the citizens have a say. I support an advisory vote in December. This gives the community time to have an educated discussion. It is all part of a process.”
Council & cost controversies, and a ‘Trojan Horse’
The council, and Mayor Sofia Pereira, came under harsh criticism by present and former councilmembers for making the statue removal decision under pressure from what the overwhelmingly anti-McKinley audience that night.
In an unusual move, Councilmember Michael Winkler, the sole vote opposing statue removal, released an open letter to his colleague, mayor Pereira. In it, he decried the “lynch mob/vigilante atmosphere,” and lectured Pereira about her “special responsibility to maintain an atmosphere of respect for all people.”
Pereira said she later discussed Winkler’s tactic with him. “I explained that councilmembers should not communicate that way with each other,” she said.
Former Councilmember Dan Hauser said the council “got rolled by a vocal mob” at the Feb. 21 meeting. He later said that the Arcata City Council on which he served in the 1970s also faced fierce opposition in creation of the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary and passage of the town’s first General Plan. The council held its ground on those issues, Hauser said, because succumbing to pressure would have effectively let the loudest voices rule. “The extremists will never be satisfied,” he said.
Hauser later said the estimated $65,000 to conduct an Environmental Impact report and remove the statue may be only the beginning of the cost. The solid granite base, hewn from Arcata’s own rock quarry in Jacoby Creek, could be an additional expense, he said.
But City Manager Karen Diemer said the $65,000 may cover costs for removal of both the statue and its pedestal. “The $65,000 was a general estimate to process CEQA and remove the statue itself,” she said. “It hopefully would cover the cost of removing the base that you see above the soil line of the planter circle and leave the planter circle, the base and the steps that exist under the planter box in place.”
She said the EIR will be conducted by city staff to minimize expenses, although she couldn’t rule out use of outside consultants at additional expense.
Pereira, criticized further for leading the council in a decision some citizens thought should have been put to Arcata’s 9,611 registered voters, defended the council’s action.
“We need to follow through on the commitment we made to this community to relocate the statue to a more appropriate location,” she said. “I take seriously my responsibility as an elected official to evaluate a difficult community issue that endured for decades and come to a decision. I stand by my vote and the public process we used over several months to come to that decision.”
The mayor isn’t a fan of Ornelas’s proposal for a multiple-choice ballot. “As originally decided, we will have an eight-month public process where people can continue to be engaged and offer input on the next home for the McKinley statue,” she said. “A vote with several possible locations isn’t going to provide us an easy answer on what to do with the statue. The public process through the EIR would give plenty of time for community members to give feedback outside of stressful, divisive, and likely money-fueled political campaigns. The process will allow for decision-makers to vet all the factors: cost, environmental impact, and all the public input received. I am optimistic that by sticking to our word and through the public process we can find a new, appropriate home for the McKinley statue and move forward as a community.”
Continued Pereira, “This proposal muddies the community conversation and creates uncertainty. It looks to many like a Trojan Horse proposal to undermine the decision we made. I can see why people see it that way. Being clear about our intentions and staying the course is the best thing we can do right now. My intentions are to uphold our decision, support the process we committed to, and continue working on the many issues before the City Council.”
Diemer said that if the council approves, Ornelas’s advisory vote could manifest as a mail-in ballot or as part of the November general election ballot. She said she would wait and incorporate the council’s decision into the project’s environmental document, since it would bear on the statue’s relocation site and in turn, the cost of the project.
The post-statue Plaza’s design may be led by the Plaza Task Force the council is establishing, Diemer said, “to implement improvements for public safety, economic development and park beautification, but this topic will require focused community dialogue and vetting of options.”