Rambling Jack: Mack Town takes the reins

Something positive and important is happening in McKinleyville. It’s been visible at recent governmental meetings, where residents are showing up in larger numbers. They’re engaged. They’re informed. They’re asking for a greater say in how McKinleyville solves its problems and shapes its future.

Take, for example, the Jan. 30 meeting of the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee (McKMAC). There were more than 35 residents in attendance, not counting the seven committee members who showed up. Those who spoke  were thoughtful, optimistic and brimming with ideas. 

Almost more notable than what happened at the meeting was what did not happen. There were no personal attacks, blanket condemnations, grandstanding speeches or the ever-present virtue signaling, which has become a staple at Arcata City Council meetings. 

The McKMAC meeting was jovial, with plenty of laughter. And it was serious too. The committee is pushing for improvements to the town’s entrances. The committee learned about a new group in town, the McKinleyville Trail Alliance, which is looking at connecting the town’s trails. 

The McKMAC is getting serious about transportation issues and will be summoning county staff to future meetings to help shape solutions.

Another example of McKinleyville’s evolution was the interest in a single open seat on the McKinleyville Community Services District Board of Directors. There were nine applicants. It was an embarrassment of riches for the board, not only because it had so many applicants to choose from at its Feb. 6 meeting, but also because almost all the applicants were highly qualified. 

It’s heartening to know that there’s such a pool of able talent available for future vacancies and elections.

The board ultimately chose Shel Barsanti, a certified public accountant, to fill the open seat. Barsanti has expertise in auditing special districts, a skill which may be of great value to the district.

As McKinleyille’s residents grapple with their town’s future, inevitably the issue of incorporation arises, as it has every couple years for at least a half a century.

But this time there is something different – an actual effort underway to obtain financial figures about the county’s revenues and expenditures in Mack Town thanks to Supervisor Steve Madrone, who represents McKinleyville. Over the years there have been several groups and committees who have studied cityhood, but none of them had the cold, hard figures needed to have an informed conversation on the issue.

McKinleyville should await those numbers, then take a methodical approach to studying  whether incorporation is financially feasible or desirable.

The downside of the incorporation debate is that it has the potential of distracting residents from dealing with existing issues using the tools now at their disposal. Incorporation, assuming it’s even remotely viable, would require multiple studies, would have to overcome numerous obstacles and would likely take years. And even if incorporation gets on the ballot, there’s no guarantee that voters will approve it.

McKinleyville should get the numbers and study incorporation, but also focus on the town’s existing forms of government, strengthen them and give residents more authority to steer McKinleyville’s future.

Rather than asking “should McKinleyville become a city?” people should ask “what services are lacking and how can they be improved?” Or they should ask “how can McKinleyville have more say and more influence over the decisions now being made by the County of Humboldt?” Incorporation may be the answer, or maybe not. We don’t know yet.

Another answer is to expand the scope of the McKMAC. When it was formed in 2012, the county created a charter which strictly limits what the advisory committee may discuss. County officials did so because they didn’t want to create a monster that would add another layer of bureaucracy and require hours of staff time. They were also worried that if McKinleyville was given an advisory committee, other communities in unincorporated Humboldt County would also want advisory committees. 

But other communities are not clamoring for advisory committees. Just last year, the Greater Eureka Municipal Advisory Committee was dissolved due to lack of interest. As former McKMAC chair and current MCSD President John Corbett has said, McKinleyville is a unique town with a unique governance, something that county officials unfamiliar with the town often don’t understand. 

Under its charter, the McKMAC can only weigh in on big-picture planning issues, like re-zonings and general plan amendments. It’s not allowed to discuss permit applications.

That charter, however, can be changed if the Board of Supervisors agrees to do so. The McKMAC should ponder its charter and consider petitioning supervisors to change it.

If the town wants more say in planning, why not make the McKMAC an Area Planning Commission? Humboldt County Planning and Building would simply bring McKinleyville projects before the McKMAC instead of the Humboldt County Planning Commission. This would allow McKinleyville residents to decide McKinleyville planning issues, unless of course, they get appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Another way for the town to take more control is to expand the MCSD.

In 2013, the MCSD unveiled a slogan: “A New Frontier in Government.” Although it was derided by some on social media at the time and hasn’t been deployed much since then, the slogan is apt for the district and the community as a whole.

That slogan was announced at a time when the district was taking a new tack and launching an aggressive lobbying campaign. The idea was to get the district known to lawmakers in an effort to secure more grants and to help shape legislation which could affect the district. It’s an effort that continues and has paid off, with the district obtaining thousands of dollars of grant funding to improve the town.

When discussing cityhood, McKinleyville residents should remember that the district already functions as a kind of city-like government, overseeing sewer, water, open space maintenance, street lights, parks and recreation in town.

Among the missing pieces are services now provided by the county. They include police protection, building and planning, and road maintenance. 

But under state law, the MCSD could take on those services with voter approval. That would put all those city-like services under local control.

So why not do this? Because it could be expensive. McKinleyville would have to tax itself to pay for all of these services. This would be in addition to the taxes that the town already pays.

On the other hand, if McKinleyville were to provide these services, then the county wouldn’t have to do so itself, and there would be a cost savings to the county.  McKinleyville could ask the county for that money, in the same way it would negotiate with the county if it were to incorporate. 

There’s a trade off here. The county would be shedding an expense, so maybe it would be willing to shed some revenue. McKinleyville would be obtaining more local control, so maybe it would be willing to pay more. Is there a magic number that would satisfy both parties?

There are a lot of options for McKinleyville, and  even more unanswered questions.



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