Arcata Mayor Brett Watson, Vice Mayor Michael Winkler take office during tense session

Re-elected Councilmembers Brett Watson and Sofia Pereira are sworn in by Administrative Assistant Kayla Johnson as Councilmembers Paul Pitino, Michael Winkler and Susan Ornelas look on from the council dais. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA CITY HALL – The Arcata City Council elected its new leaders today, as it does every December. Vice Mayor Brett Watson was unanimously elected mayor, and Councilmember Michael Winkler was elected vice mayor on a 4–1 vote, with former Mayor Sofia Pereira dissenting.

The vote was preceded by some ritual formalities – the council's certification of the results of the November election and the swearing in of re-elected Councilmembers Pereira and Watson by Kayla Johnson, city administrative assistant.

Prior to the internal election among councilmembers, then-Mayor Sofia Pereira reflected on the council's tumultuous year, which saw meetings disrupted over issues such as the unsolved killing of Humboldt State student David Josiah Lawson and the controversy over removal of the statue of William McKinley from the Plaza.

"This has really been an honor to serve as the mayor of Arcata this past year," Pereira said. "While there were challenging moments, I am proud of our community and what we accomplished together." She cited creation of the Zero Waste Task Force, the Plaza Improvement Task Force, work with Equity Arcata to improve inclusiveness, partnership with Arcata Main Street to make the Plaza more family friendly, cleanups of Valley West and the hiring of Police Chief Brian Ahearn.

City Manager Karen Diemer noted that the City Council Protocol Manual recommends (but doesn't require) the vice mayor to be promoted to mayor, and for the vice mayor to be the longest continuously-serving councilmember who hasn't previously served as mayor or who hasn't been mayor for the longest time.

Periera nominated Watson, the motion seconded by Councilmember Paul Pitino. Watson was then unanimously elected to Arcata's top leadership position by the other councilmembers. Watson and Periera then swapped seats, with the new mayor taking the center position on the dais.

"It really is a great honor to be entrusted with this duty," Mayor Watson said. "I'm very grateful." He predicted that 2019 will be "a great year for the city."

Watson then nominated Winkler to become vice mayor, a motion again seconded by Pitino.

Pereira spoke up with "concerns," which she said she had already spoken to Winkler about personally. Without citing specifics, she called into question Winkler's "ability and credibility to lead our community in an additional leadership role at this time."

"I feel open and direct communication is what we owe to each other as colleagues," she said. "Many constituents over the past year have relayed concerns to me statements made and actions taken by Councilmember Michael Winkler, and I want to be clear that these concerns being raised goes beyond what has been stated publicly at meetings at public comment, and it includes Arcata residents directly sharing their concerns with me."

She said she'd been asked to censure Winkler "for his behavior," but she said she wouldn't do so "given we were all elected to serve on the City Council."

"However," she continued, "there is a lot of space between censuring a colleague and awarding additional responsibilities." She said she would respectfully vote against him being elected vice mayor "because I don't think this is the time to grant him additional leadership responsibility." 

Pitino said that he would stick to the rotational procedure described in the protocol manual, a system he has long supported after voicing grievances about being excluded from the mayorship. "I think we should give Michael the same opportunity that was given to me to show what kind of person I am," he said, "despite some not-so-smooth remarks" that Winkler made. 

Councilmember Susan Ornelas said she understood Pereira's position and had similar thoughts during a "troublesome year," but said that she's known Winkler for 20 years and "his heart is in the right place even if some of the words he chose maybe weren't always prime. We're all humans and we make mistakes." She said that he had "done wonderful things in this community," and she would support his nomination.

Winkler thanked Ornelas and Pitino for their support, and vowed to work with Pereira to improve things between them. Turning to Pereira, he said, "I would like to use this opportunity, if it's availed to me, to build on the positive aspects of our relationship."

Asked by a reporter during public comment to put specifics to her objections to Winkler, Pereira declined. She said only that she had shared the unspecified concerns with Winkler. "We've had a conversation, and I'm happy to continue the conversation, as he suggested as well," she said.   

Winkler had been widely criticized for using the term "lynch mob/vigilante atmosphere" in describing behavior of attendees at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting at which the council first voted to remove the McKinley statue. Among the protest signs at that meeting, during which statue supporters were shouted down by removal advocates during public comment, was one advocating "Re-Assassinate McKinley."

Those factors apparently led Winkler to invoke the terms in an "open letter" to Pereira. He was subsequently condemned as insensitive and racist for applying the term "lynch mob" to citizens of color. 

Winkler also assisted with the successful petition drive to place a pro-statue measure on the November ballot, but it was voted down by a roughly 2–1 majority of Arcata voters. Many statue opponents also considered this inappropriate.

(A similar variation to the usually-innocuous ritual took place in 2015, when Ornelas said that Pitino lacked the emotional temperament to serve as mayor, and voted against him. However, he was elected mayor on a 3–1 vote anyway.)

With that, Winkler was elected vice mayor 3–1, with Pereira dissenting. 

Winkler later reflected on the council session. "Councilmember Pereira and I have had two long private meetings in the past two weeks," he wrote in an email message. "I feel that as a result of the meetings that our communications have improved and that we have been able to have positive and in-depth discussions on a number of contentious issues that have come before the City Council in the past year."

Continued Winkler, "At this time, I feel that a significant point where she and I disagree is when a councilmember disagrees with a majority decision of the Council, in what way, if any, that councilmember can ethically express their disagreement.
"I believe, that in the vast majority of cases, each councilmember should publicly support each majority decision of council. However, I also believe that there are rare instances where a councilmember so strongly disagrees with a decision of the Council that it is appropriate for that councilmember to publicly express disagreement and even take a lead role in a petition drive to allow the voters to overturn that decision."
Concluded Winkler, "For me, there has only been one such decision in the 10 years that I have been on the Arcata City Council."

Freshly elected Mayor Watson will hold his regular "Office Hours" public access session at City Hall at 5:30 p.m., held the second and fourth Thusdays of the month. Citizens are invited to share their issues and ask questions of him.