A turbulent NextGen succession at City Hall

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Arcata’s new mayor is Sofia Pereira, and Brett Watson is vice mayor. The two were elected, both by unanimous votes of the council per the Arcata Municipal Code. Their ascendance represents a generational change of leadership on the council after years of domination by what might be viewed as the old guard of Susan Ornelas, Paul Pitino and Michael Winkler.

The traditionally perfunctory special meeting in which the City Council selects next year’s top officers has been getting less so. Two years ago, former Mayor Susan Ornelas used the occasion to tar Mayor-to-be Paul Pitino as too emotionally volatile for the position.

Arcata Mayor Sofia Pereira and Vice Mayor Brett Watson. KLH | Union

This year, the succession rite was infused with tension over the unresolved killing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson. Advocates for whom turned out at 8 a.m. to ask pointed questions and make numerous off-mic comments during what is mostly a ceremonial proceeding. A new group advocating for the retention of the McKinley statue even made a potentially facetious appearance amid background comments by protesters.

The first public comment was by one of several Lawson advocates. He hoped for a new mayor who is “less condescending” than Ornelas. He said he hoped Pereira “better represents the people of Arcata” and will not look at the Lawson case as “just another thing that happened.”

“I am happy that we no longer have Susan Ornelas as our mayor,” the man said.

“Thank you,” Ornelas said.

On stepping down, Ornelas thanked the community for the opportunity. “Currently, we’re rocking as a city,” she said. She said it had been a “difficult and challenging year,” but that it was also “deep and rich.” She quoted the Dalai Lama’s definition of love, “to truly want the best for the other.”

Pereira kicked off her mayorship on a positive note. “I’m honored that my colleagues on the council have entrusted me with this responsibility,” she said. “I am excited to continue working with our community partners on issues surrounding the Plaza, housing, public safety and ensuring this is a livable community for all our residents. I am looking forward to supporting the city’s goals while at the same time being responsive to the needs of our community. We live in a great and engaged community – I’m proud to step up and serve in this role.”

Councilmember Paul Pitino, perhaps mindful of his Ornelas-snub from two years ago, said he likes routine rotation of the top council positions because it offers predictability. When he nominated Watson for the vice-mayor position, blogger Tina Sampay spoke out from the back of the chamber. Her off-mic comments were largely inaudible to viewers at home, but rang out clearly to those present in the chamber.

“I object,” Sampay said. “He’s new here. If anything, I should be the mayor if that’s the case; if you’re going to give it to somebody who’s only been here a few months and doesn’t even know that the Arcata Police Association isn’t even represented by the union.”

Pereira then opened up public comment on the matter, but no one stepped up to the public podium to address the council and home viewers. Sampay nonetheless fired off a few more remarks from the back of the audience, telling the council to “do some research so you guys can understand how the city really works.”

Advocates for homicide victim David Josiah Lawson in the back of Council Chamber. KLH | Union

The council then plowed through a list of councilmember liaison assignments, specifying who will represent Arcata to local and regional bodies in and out of government in the coming year.

On opening the matter up to public comment, the man who’d commented before objected to Ornelas’s appointment as liaison to the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG). “I feel that she doesn’t really represent the diversity of Arcata very well, and doesn’t even try to,” he said. “Arcata is often seen as the progressive town in Humboldt, so we want the progressive candidates to be representing us.”

Sampay, holding up a poster, asked for an explanation of the qualifications for mayor and vice mayor, and the process for their selection. “Are you guys just going off the top of your head?” she asked.

A man who described himself as a reporter for the Humboldt State Lumberjack student newspaper – and who had been participating in the show of support for Lawson by holding up his poster – asked Police Chief Tom Chapman for an update on the case. But none was provided.

Former City Councilmember Bob Ornelas spoke as “acting president of the Mexicans for McKinley, Sunny Brae chapter.” At the previous week's Arcata Chamber of Commerce Mixer, Ornelas had proclaimed "Save the statue!" during a public speaking opportunity. He thanked the former mayor for her service and offered best wishes to Pereira.

At this, Sampay, standing behind him, repeatedly said, “You’re her husband!”

Another woman said she was a representative of a new group called the “Historic Justice Alliance.” She urged the new council to pursue the Lawson case and “removal of the racist statue of Mr. McKinley... those emblems should not be in our town and a murderer should not be walking around in our town because those things are things that make people unsafe in this community.”

Responding to comments, Pereira clarified that HCAOG has a transportation focus, and isn’t a body focused generally on area government. She also said that Watson, having taken over former Councilmember Mark Wheetley’s seat, was next in line for the vice mayor position by regular rotation.

Ornelas noted that anyone who’d serve as mayor would have to be elected. Councilmember Michael Winkler said the mayor had to have demonstrated experience to be qualified for the position.

Amid more off-mic objections by Sampay, Councilmember Paul Pitino explained the differences between General Law cities, which Arcata is, and charter cities.

When the council reconvened as the Joint Powers Authority, the man who’d addressed the council previously asked that costs for removal of “the McKinleyville statue” (a common misnomer) be disclosed. He also urged city staff, particularly Arcata Police, to undergo racial bias awareness training.

The costs and logistics of statue removal, plus legal, environmental and permitting requirements may be provided by the city at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting which will be dedicated to discussion of the statue and Jacoby Building plaque.


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