Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Arcata will hold a presidential election of sorts on Nov. 6. That’s when the fate of the statue of President William McKinley will be decided by the voters of Arcata.
A four-person City Council (with Mayor Sofia Pereira absent) voted Wednesday night to adopt Resolution No. 189-05 and forward the successful "Petition for the Initiative to Prohibit the Modification and/or Destruction of the President William McKinley Statute and its base and/or the Relocation from its Historic Place in the Center of the Arcata Plaza" to county officials for ballot placement.
The petition needed 954 signatures to qualify. Petitioners submitted 1,765 signatures for review and in June, the county verified 1,426 of them as valid.
The council had three legal options. One was to adopt the ordinance as law on the spot. Another was to send it to the county for ballot placement, which it did.
A third option was to require a report be written by relevant city departments which would analyze a range of issues including: fiscal impacts; consistency with the city’s General Plan and other plans; effects on housing and meeting regional housing needs; impacts on infrastructure funding for transportation, schools, parks and open space; impacts on the ability to attract retail businesses and employees; impacts on vacant parcels of land; impacts on open space, traffic congestion, business districts and revitalization; whatever else the council might want examined.
Speakers weighed in on all sides of the matter. Vice Mayor Brett Watson first cautioned speakers against intimidating behavior, the kind which suppressed pro-statue public comment at the February meeting in which the council voted to remove the statue.
Kent Sawatsky lamented poor voter participation in the recent election and supported ballot placement for “letting the people have their stay.”
Joel Morrison largely focused largely on the values and character of Councilmember Michael Winkler, who was active in organizing the petition drive. Morrison said the statue is racist, guilty of mass slaughter and white supremacy, and decried the statue supporters’ “gross patriotic affection that allows them to dismiss atrocities.” He condemned Winkler for “stale plaudits used by willfully ignorant advocates and apologists for white supremacy.” He further faulted Winkler for advocating a “majority rule solution” of the type that decimated local indigenous peoples.
“You are on the wrong side of history and it will be recorded as such,” Morrison said.
Lisa Pelletier urged the council to stand by their February vote and not put the petition on the ballot in order to honor the wishes of the Wiyot people. She predicted that the statue, which she called a symbol of structural racism, would be removed eventually anyway due to changing population demographics. “What are your values for future generations?” she asked. “What do you want this city to represent?”
Meg Stofsky said the petition language was confusing and “perhaps deliberately deceptive” in potentially preventing the statue’s removal. She saw a troubling distinction between putting the fate of the statue to a vote and offering the option to reverse the council’s removal decision.
“It’s a symbol of murder and white oppression of indigenous people around the world,” Stofsky said. She directed the council to “refuse to certify” the petitions.
Stephanie McCaleb, one of the petitioners, said she gathered signatures “because I absolutely believe in the democratic process.” She said Arcata has “many pressing needs, and removing the statue of McKinley is not, to my mind, one of them.”
McCaleb said that a previous meeting during which statue removal was considered, she was “personally threatened with physical violence and retribution for speaking out.” She urged the council to move ahead with ballot placement.
Alexandra Stillman also backed the ballot option on grounds of democracy. “It’s come to the point where we should just let the voters make a decision on that.”
Barbara Burns based her testimony largely on personal incredulity. She expressed disbelief that the council was “taking time, money, energy, blood and tears to discuss this further.”
She said the council’s decision already implemented a worthy democratic process based on citizen testimony, and didn’t need revision by a ballot measure.
“This does not make sense to me,” Burns said. “It’s complex, it’s confusing and it’s a waste.”
Former Councilmember Mark Wheetley supported ballot placement, stating that “the council got a little ahead of themselves on this problem.” He said the council should represent the will of the people, and that “this is the process for that.”
Linda Puzz said she had attended the council’s February meeting, but left without speaking in support of the statue due to intimidation by anti-statue activists. “It was really out of hand,” she said. As for McKinley, she said “He did wrong and right, but we have to learn by our past and move on.”
Puzz described the statue as iconic to Arcata. She said that removal would be a waste of money giving other pressing civic priorities. “It really surprised me that some of you guys voted to do this on your own without thinking of the city people,” she said.
American Legion Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling said that he supported a vote of the people. “President McKinley’s a veteran, he’d understand it. Give the vote to the people.”
Humboldt County Green Party Chairwoman Kelsey Reedy told the council to stick by its February removal decision, lamenting that the council was still processing the issue because of “what it is that Winkler has done.”
Reedy said it was the council’s responsibility to order a thorough verification of every petition signature, stating that the petition drive wasn’t conducted properly. “That we’re definitely going to be fighting,” she said.
“You guys should do whatever you can to slow this down because you know this isn’t right,” Reedy said. “You know this shouldn’t be going to the voters. Because it’s not the voters who are representing who it is that the statue impacts."
Reedy said that forwarding the measure for ballot placement would invalidate previous council proclamations in support of indigenous peoples and in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. “What is the point of creating these proclamations when they don’t mean anything?” she asked.
Nathaniel McGuigan, co-chair of Humboldt State Mecha, a Latino advocacy group, said ballot placement would be a “rollback” of the February decision. “A vote to remove McKinley is a vote against U.S. Imperialism,” he said.
Carly Arroyo said the public process represented “systemic racism” in that the City Council’s Feb. 21 decision wasn’t proving durable. She said Winkler’s use of the term “lynch mob” to describe the boisterous crowd at that meeting also represented systemic racism.
“Shame to all those who signed that petition, and shame to the City Councilmember Michael Winkler for endorsing that and going along with it,” Arroyo said.
The council’s turn
Council discussion kicked off with the much-reviled Winkler.
“Very clearly, a very large number of people in Arcata, 15 percent of the registered voters, say they want to vote of this,” he said. He said the petition process is described in the California Constitution, and represents a democratic process under which 1,400 citizens have exercised their right to reverse a decision by their elected representatives.
Winkler said he’d asked his fellow councilmembers to set aside their personal beliefs and vote to place the ballot measure as an expression of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the citizens.
Councilmember Paul Pitino, the most vehement statue critic, wondered whether the report could be prepared without delaying the November vote. City Manager Karen Diemer said it depended what the council wanted to have in the report. Pitino said it could help someone write an informative “con” argument to counter a potentially well-funded pro-statue campaign, but Diemer told him that was a separate consideration.
Councilmember Susan Ornelas said two Humboldt State history interns are compiling McKinley research for eventual posting on the city’s website in a searchable format. “I hope that people will educate themselves on it, because this is important,” Ornelas said. “It’s our community symbol, in a sense.”
Pitino questioned the value of such a website, saying that voters are likely only to read the ballot statement.
Diemer said arguments for and against are due July 20, with the statements then submitted to the other side for a rebuttal which is due 10 days after that. A non-majority of councilmembers could author a statement without the need for another meeting. But, Diemer said, a community member or group could submit an opposing statement for consideration by the city clerk, who would select the best one for unedited inclusion in the ballot guide.
Winkler moved to submit the ordinance for ballot inclusion, and Ornelas seconded the motion.
Public comment resumed, with Stofsky complaining that the ballot initiative’s wording was confusing. She said the council was “abdicating its responsibilities” by having the city clerk select the ballot statement.
Reedy said she and the Wiyot Tribe were collaborating on a “con” statement. She urged the council to break the law, refuse to submit the initiative to the county per the Elections Code and create a “fourth option” in the tradition of civil disobedience. That, she said, would effectively delay the matter being decided, bring more media interest, a possible lawsuit by the petitioners and more awareness of the issue.
“That means stalling this going to the vote for as long as possible. That means calling for the most detailed report. Or just say ‘no’,” Reedy said. “Because doing the right thing isn’t always easy.”
Sawatsky said that the suggested civil disobedience could be costly and “contribute to the early retirement fund for lawyers.”
“If you want to throw a couple hundred thousand at the thing, I guess that’s your decision,” he said.
When the matter went back to the council, the vote was unanimous to send the petitions on to the Board of Supervisors for ballot placement.
The next morning dawned with the statue and its base covered in chalk anti-McKinley slogans, quickly hosed off by city parks workers.