So-Called Thoughts: Why I’m not voting for the two most experienced City Council candidates

I’m not voting for the two incumbent Arcata City Councilmembers, and here’s why. Hopefully, in next week’s edition, they or their fans can tell me and you why I’m totally wrong about all this. Because I’d really like to be.

First, in praise of Paul Pitino and Michael Winkler. Both have worked hard for the city, on and off the dais. Both are intricately embroidered into Arcata history. 

There’s no doubt that they deeply care about Arcata, and are fully committed, body and soul, to its well being. Which is why I endorsed them in 2016.

Paul Pitino

Is there a more salt of the earth individual on Planet Earth than Mr. Pitino? Unfailingly affable landscaper Paul gets into the weeds, literally, of Arcata.

Take a look at his hands sometime. Here’s someone deeply connected to the world around him.  During the statue crisis, Paul didn’t supply the odious Tucker Carlson with the batshit ultra-leftist caricature Captain Pasty was looking for. He kept his cool, had some supremely rational, not-mean comebacks and won my heart again for the 693rd time.

A true gentleman in all situations, Paul came up through the ranks of the city’s advisory committees, and used his groundtruthing skills to benefit both the Transportation Safety Committee and City Council in their deliberations. 

So why wouldn’t I vote for such a sterling character in 2020? 

Paul lost me in February with his ill-advised feint against community water fluoridation. And not even because he’s against fluoride for silly reasons, but that he projected unfounded fear from the council dais (something Winkler has honed to a high art).

With an array of dental scientists in the audience to answer questions, Paul asked them nothing. Instead, he relied on a single sketchy, outlier study that’s been widely condemned in the scientific community but that offered confirmation bias to his unfounded conclusions about fluoride’s “neurotoxicity.” 

And then he said the fateful words that ended my ability to vote for him: “If you’re pregnant, do not drink fluoridated water because it will affect the IQ of your baby.”  

Which presents us with the crestfalling conundrum of a great person whom you like, even admire, doing something despicable. Here’s a City Councilmember telling Arcata residents that our drinking water harms babies. 

It’s wildly irresponsible to use one’s taxpayer-supplied bullhorn to promote the worst Internet craziness and deeply misinform citizens on a medical issue. 

Being a new parent is no day at the beach. It's a wonderful time, but one marked by many stresses and uncertainties, concerns and choices where you're not always sure you're doing the right thing, and here comes kindly Paul to throw a bucket full of brain damage fear into the mix.

There are more than a few dedicated professionals on city staff who work daily to ensure that our drinking water is clean and safe. Does Paul have better knowledge of their jobs than they do? Because according to him, they're letting children's lives be permanently degraded.

The City Council’s official 2020 goals include: “Use best available science for future planning.”

I’m not a scientist. That’s why, on matters scientific, I heed the views of those who are, not fringe websites that want me to be afraid of innocuous phenomena and then sell me worthless healing crystals and detox treatments or whatever.

Paul should have asked those half-dozen scientists were sitting there in Council Chamber that night– people who’ve devoted their lives to understanding these issues – to address his issues with fluoride before he went off on that tangent. 

I can only guess that he thinks doctors and dentists are content to destroy their patients' lives in their infancy with the tragic, lifelong impairment of brain damage.

Paul’s incuriosity and disregard for the council’s goals, disinterest in science and his willingness to flippantly, needlessly frighten the public are why I can’t vote for him.

Michael Winkler

Winkler lives and breathes Arcata, and has gone above and beyond to help it out. His one-man graffiti removal campaign is just one example or many, many forms of public service he’s pursued. 

So why, unlike in 2016, am I not voting for Michael? Because of his penchant for reckless, destructive rhetoric and his obstinate silence about a disturbing abuse of his position.

While Paul went off the rails with his foolish February fluorophobia, with Michael, I hardly know where to begin. 

When the people of Arcata were deciding the highly contentious issue of the McKinley statue, Winkler threw gasoline on the divisive controversy by calling statue opponents – many of whom were people of color – a “lynch mob.” 

His behavior so inflamed the restive anti-statue crowd at one of the council meetings that afterward, he had to hide in the councilmembers’ back office, unable to leave City Hall and walk home out of real or imagined fear for his personal safety. 

I felt sorry for him and arranged with another councilmember for Michael to go out City Hall’s back door and meet me up the road on darkened F Street, where I picked him up and gave him a ride home.   

Michael had every right to oppose removal of the McKinley statue. It was a defensible position, as was removing it. But for whatever reason, he chose not to make principled arguments, but to appeal to fear with those infamous "alternative facts."

Winkler went on to say – in an official ballot argument, no less – that removing the statue would cost more than a half-million dollars.

Said Winkler: 

“Arcata taxpayers would be stuck with that bill. To balance our budget, a $525,000 project would require either cutting services — terminating approximately eight city employees (eight fewer police officers or the entire recreation department). That or raise taxes.”

In other words, vote against the statue and you won’t have decent crime protection or summer camps for your kid. Be afraid!

While the city had estimated statue removal cost at $65,000, the final cost ended up at just $16,377, and we lost no police officers or the Recreation Division. 

In fact, we could have removed more than 32 statues for the insanely exaggerated $525,000 cost Winkler claimed. (Reminder: this guy helps craft the city budget.)

Asked about all this, Winkler said, “I am extremely proud of my role in the statue controversy” and called his feckless actions “excellent service.” 

While “lynch mob” is frequently used in a generic sense on all kinds of issues, it was horribly misapplied in this case to folks of color. Maybe it was a simple, if embarrassing rhetorical accident. If so, all he had to do was own the mistakes with a little humility, and remorse for intensifying the anger. People respond well to sincere contrition.

But nope. He opted for pride and arrogance. Is Michael a racist? I'm having trouble assimilating that notion because he is neither a stupid nor ignorant person. But his jarring defense of having said such an "excellent" thing... well, that just isn't what any person focused on equity and racial justice, and on representing everyone, says.

Do the racially divisive, zany claims, avoidance of any contrition, and overweening self-congratulation remind you of any particular orange politicians? Yes, I went there.

No humility. No remorse. No shame. Is 2020 Arcata willing to re-elect a councilmember who is "extremely proud" of calling BIPOC civil rights advocates a "lynch mob?"

Fast forward to 2020 and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Last spring, with everyone trying to understand the scope of the peril, Winkler didn’t let the opportunity to add confusion and fear to the mix pass by untaken. 

During the April 13 City Council meeting, he said that “what’s going to happen” is coronavirus contamination of groceries. There was, and is, zero science pointing to food as an infection vector. 

Paul says our drinking water wrecks baby brains, and Michael tells us our food can give us COVID-19. Fun facts: it doesn’t, and it won't.

We might as well have Dr. Oz and Gwyneth Paltrow running the show. What would be the difference?

This illustrates one of the things I really loathe – using science as your bitch when it supports your belief tribe’s doctrine, and trampling it when it doesn’t.  

Fortunately, sanity somehow prevailed and the other councilmembers didn’t pursue Paul or Michael’s errant advisories.  

Politicians say all kinds of stupid crap. But I won’t apologize for expecting more from our local electeds, and from the five councilmembers we in Arcata pay to look out for us. 

Perhaps the most disturbing Winkler dereliction involves his entanglements with development interests that prevent him from participating in important council business.

Because of his energy consulting business’s relationships with developers, he’s had to recuse himself from important council business, such as Danco’s Creek Side Homes project which required annexation of Arcata Bottom land, and The Village student housing project. 

His multiple recusals on these projects left the council with an even-number of members, and at times led to split votes and paralysis – a costly disservice to the citizens, city staff who put many hours of work into preparation, and project applicants, and something he had never told the voters would be a problem when he was running for council.

But most bothersome is what looks very much like exploitation of city processes for personal gain. Insider trading, you might call it.

When developer AMCAL proposed The Village, Winkler’s partner at Redwood Energy, Sean Armstrong, traveled down to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters to consult with AMCAL about the project’s energy features. 

This, along with the company’s previous work with AMCAL, rendered Winkler unable to perform his duties as a councilmember, since he had financial skin in the game with this project.

What we have here is a city councilmember mining project applications landing in the city’s Community Development department for business leads that negate his council responsibilities. 

Winkler is using his position as an elected leader for personal gain while rendering himself unable to carry out the work we elected him for, pay him and provide him with health care for.

He made a choice as to whom he would represent in the matter of The Village, and it wasn't the people of Arcata.

On top of all that, he refuses to discuss the matter. Does that sound like clean government to you, Arcata? 

I asked Michael: Do you consider your (lack of) response to these pressing questions a model of good government service for others to follow?  

He didn’t answer, because the only answer is no, it’s not responsible or ethical governance. Winkler refuses to discuss any of these issues. He calls perfectly legitimate inquiries about them “leading questions.” 

If everything’s on the up and up, why doesn’t he disabuse me of my worries? Here’s Michael’s final statement:

“In responding to your question about my fitness for office, in our system of government, we hold elections. I was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012 and 2016. If I choose to run again in 2020 and voters feel that I am unqualified then they can vote for someone else.”

Page 19 of the City Council Protocol Manual, which Winkler voted to approve, states:

“Perhaps the most fundamental role of a Councilmember is communication — communication with the public to assess community opinions and needs; communication to share the vision and goals of the City with constituents; and communication with staff to provide policy direction and to gain an understanding of the implications of various policy alternatives.”

Apparently those ethical standards are just window dressing, and irrelevant – kind of like the U.S. Constitution these days.

Again, does that remind you of anyone else who is prone to irresponsible statements, uses his elected office for self-dealing and who is on the Nov. 3 ballot?

The good news

Paul and Michael are just plain stale as councilmembers. Pitino’s been a councilmember for six years (this time around), Winkler for 12. 

They’ve been in there too long, have forgotten the basics, are growing hubristic and arrogant and aren’t doing their best work any more.

They’re ignoring their own goals and protocols, making poor decisions and saying extremely stupid things. They’re taking up space that could be filled by better-performing councilmembers.

The great news is, we’re fortunate to have right now some very well-qualified and fresh choices for council among the other eight candidates. And it is definitely time for a change.

But this is change that we needn’t fear, because even without Paul and Michael on the council, we can still have benefit of their massive experience and abilities via city committees and commissions. 

Both the Transportation Safety Committee (which Paul served on and has a passion for) and the Planning Commission (which Michael was on) have vacancies that they could apply for. 

(Although, after reading the print edition of this column, someone who served with Winkler on the Planco wrote in saying they didn't want to see him back on it. Said the former Winkler associate: “He was always recusing himself and not giving good reasons why. You have to have a valid reason not to vote on an item.”)

The Public Safety Committee also needs several members. Imagine both of them on that ailing body. With all their experience and institutional knowledge, they’d be just what it needs.

All of the above is why I, personally, am not voting for either of the two City Council incumbents. 

This time around, Arcata has a fantastic opportunity to make a hard leadership reassessment and  reinvent itself for the 2020s.


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