Mad River Union
McKINLEYVILLE – When Shel Barsanti was chosen Feb. 6 to fill a vacant seat on the McKinleyville Community Services District Board of Directors, the meeting was a virtual love fest. In a straw vote, the certified public accountant was picked by all directors as either their first or second choice out of the nine applicants, with the board ultimately voting unanimously to appoint her to fill the seat vacated by George Wheeler due to health reasons.
But at Barsanti’s first meeting as a board member on March 6, her selection was met with protests by several members of the public, who allege that she has made racially insensitive comments on social media.
Their concerns were outlined in a guest opinion published the same day in the Mad River Union signed by the McKinleyville Alliance for Racial Equity (MARE), a local group working to stop racism.
“Soon after the appointment was announced many people voiced dismay and revealed details of disturbing interactions with the appointee in online forums. These exchanges can be described as culturally insensitive at best, and racist at worst,” stated the column, signed by Diane Des Marets, S. Craig Tucker and Holly Scaglione.
Neither the guest opinion, nor people who spoke at last week’s meeting, cited any specific comments by Barsanti. But they did say that her comments on social media postings were problematic. They also questioned the process the board used to fill the vacancy.
In November, voters overwhelmingly chose the three incumbent candidates – George Wheeler, David Couch and Dennis Mayo. Wheeler was the top vote-getter, with 3,350 votes, or 27.11 percent, followed by Couch with 3,335 votes, or 26.99 percent, and Mayo with 3,312 or 26.80 percent. Challenger Erik Yahmo Ahqha Rydberg received 2,190 votes, or 17.72 percent.
But due to his battle with cancer, Wheeler resigned on Dec. 10. On Jan. 2, the board decided to fill the vacancy through appointment and invited residents to apply for the position. On Feb. 6, a public hearing was held and the applicants were invited to address the board, which ultimately chose Barsanti.
Although the meeting was agendized as required under open meeting laws, and was publicized in the Union and elsewhere online, that process didn’t sit well with some of the people who spoke at the March 6 meeting.
Support for Rydberg
Rydberg told the board that he thought he should have been appointed, being that he ran for the position and campaigned for the seat.”Beside from being an indigenous person, I put forth the effort,” said Rydberg, who is a Pomo.
Joel Morrison told the board he voted for Rydberg and that the board should have appointed him.
“Essentially, a small group of board members saw fit to ignore the voters” and “install somebody,” Morrison said.
“It’s alarming and it’s suspect,” Morrison said. “It may backfire and really, it diminishes the legitimacy of McKinleyville.”
Also speaking in favor of Rydberg was Kathleen Ann. “As a white settler here, it is important to acknowledge whose land were are on. In McKinleyville, we are on Wiyot territory,” Kathleen Ann said. “You have the opportunity to appoint Erik Rydberg, who ran in the November election and received 2,190 votes from community members. Why do you feel it was OK for the four of you to override the wishes of 2,190 residents?”
“Making a decision like this demonstrates why there are people who identify McKinleyville as McKlaneyville. This is a good ol’ boy decision,” said Kathleen Ann, who chided the board for not reaching out to groups that are doing anti-racist work before making an appointment.
But Mayo pointed out that both he and Director Mary Burke, who voted for Barsanti, are members of the McKinleyville Alliance for Racial Equity. Mayo said that last year, the MCSD completely rewrote its policies with regard to facility rentals and subcontractors to prohibit discrimination.
“I think we did not only a yeoman’s job, I think we did the right job,” Mayo said.
Mayo defended the appointment process, noting that there was time Feb. 6 for public comment. “At that particular time it was open for the public to discuss those applicants,” Mayo said.
“I don’t subscribe to the fact that an hour later or a week later everybody gets their dander up and, oh my god, we deride what you did,” Mayo said. “Tough.”
During public comments, McKinleyville resident Carol Newman spoke in favor of Barsanti, who is a friend of hers. Newman spoke about how Barsanti worked hard to get a master’s degree, became a certified public accountant and volunteered in the community.
“She loves McKinleyville and supports McKinleyville in any way that she can” Newman said.
Pat Barsanti, Shel Barsanti’s husband, defended his wife’s reputation. “Please don’t play this game,” Pat Barsanti said to the board.
Already sworn in
The protests against Shel Barsanti’s appointment were ultimately futile, as she had already been selected by the board the month before. According to Manager Greg Orsini, Barsanti was sworn in and took her oath during an orientation.
Board President John Corbett suggested that the board hold a meeting in the future to discuss the board’s appointment process along with social and racial justice issues.
S. Craig Tucker of MARE suggested that the board get involved with racial equity trainings and workshops.
“We really want people to come to McKinleyville no matter what race you are, no matter what color you are, no matter what gender you are and feel like you’re welcome here and you have the same opportunities that everybody else has,” Tucker said.
Board member Burke said it’s important for McKinleyville to have these discussions. “I don’t think the public or taxpayers expect MCSD to solve racism, but what we can do is listen and reflect on how we do our business,” Burke said. “I’m learning to use my whiteness, the privilege that comes with it, and my position of power to make decisions that lead to a more equitable community.”
Barsanti did not respond directly to the allegations about her social media postings, but said the community must give people “a sense of safety and acceptance.”
“We must also support the work of racial equity in McKinleyville,” Barsanti said. “McKinleyville has always been a problem-solving community. When we have a community challenge, we gather and respectfully listen to all points of view to solve the challenge.”
“I believe each one of us have a little piece of the answer to this, our community challenge,” Barsanti. “We just all need to listen.”
The entire discussion took place during public comments at the beginning of the meeting. When it was time for the MCSD board to tackle the evening’s agenda, almost all of Barsanti’s critics, including Rydberg, left the meeting.