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Sept. 16, 2004


Do the right thing


The Arcata Eye reported last week that a number of Arcata and McKinleyville area property owners -- some individuals, some institutions -- failed to cast a ballot in the vote to establish a special fire assessment.

The effort fell short, and the lack of extra money could mean part-time station closures and cutbacks in essential upkeep, like making sure all hydrants are working, Fire Chief Dave White said this week.

A similar measure in Humboldt Fire District No. 1 was approved by voters.

The two databases of property owners and how they voted reveals a positively scandalous list of large, public institutions that neglected to cast a ballot.

Take schools, for instance. Public schools presumably have the safety of their young charges foremost in mind. Yet a number of local districts, including Arcata Union High School, Arcata Elementary, Northern Humboldt High School, Freshwater, South Bay Union, Cutten and Pacific Union, did not vote. To their credit, McKinleyville Union and Jacoby Creek cast "yes" ballots.

Mad River Hospital? No ballot. St. Joseph Hospital? No ballot.

What's going on here?

A number of officials contacted by the Eye said they did not see a ballot, that it "did not come across my desk" or that they simply didn't know what became of it. Some individuals told White that they would rather not vote at all than cast a ballot that other people could see.

The reason this story is so fascinating to me is that it exposes something that we are accustomed to considering private: our votes. Unlike regular elections, votes to establish a "benefit assessment," as these charges are called, are not secret. Information included with both fire districts' ballots made that clear. And the fire districts have nothing to do with that policy. "It's spelled out in the California State Constitution, and that's how we have to do it," Chief White of Arcata said.

It raises the issue of public versus private behavior. When we know people are watching us, don't we instinctively think twice about acting rudely or irresponsibly? Aren't we motivated, to some degree, by the fear of embarrassment? Maybe this is not such a bad thing.

I suspect that school and hospital officials -- had they known they would be rapped for having blown off an important issue -- might have made a bit more effort to put that ballot at the top of their overflowing "in" boxes.

But can't we do better than that? Can't we do the right thing just because it's the right thing to do? Can't we decide that something this important must be tracked down and acted upon? It makes me wonder what else is falling through the administrative cracks.



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