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Change of Venue 

Arcata council votes to remove McKinley but a long process awaits

The McKinley statue on Arcata Plaza. - PHOTO BY SAM ARMANINO
  • Photo by Sam Armanino
  • The McKinley statue on Arcata Plaza.

Arcata Councilmember Paul Pitino didn't waste any time after listening to nearly three hours of public comment on whether the statue of President William McKinley and an offensive plaque should be pulled from the Arcata Plaza.

"I'd like to get right into it and say I'd like to make a motion to remove the statue and store it somewhere ... and remove the plaque," he said immediately after the matter landed back before the council.

Councilmember Susan Ornelas piped in with a quick second. And, just like that, the stage was set. 

While a bit more discussion would follow and the removal of the statue and the plaque would ultimately be separated into two motions, the council summarily decided Feb. 21 to dramatically change the city's center.

The standing-room-only crowd that spilled out of the council chambers broke into loud applause, with many calling, "thank you," from the audience.

After more than 100 years of holding court, the controversial sculpture that survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to be dedicated to Arcata by a local resident amid a Fourth of July celebration is coming down. But not quite yet. Even if the council's 4-1 vote, with Councilmember Michael Winkler dissenting, was reached rather swiftly last week, the long haul of the actual removal process is just getting started, with the first in a series of public meetings slated for later this month.

That's because regardless of whether McKinley's statue is seen as an overtly oppressive symbol that has no place in Arcata or a deserving tribute that is intricately linked to the city's past, the bronze work has official standing as a historic feature of the plaza in the Arcata General Plan.

To take McKinley down, the plan needs to be amended and that is no simple task. It requires an environmental review and a slew of public hearings on the "relocation of a historic resource (including its relocation destination)," according to city staff.

While the average timeline is eight months, this process could take even longer, if previous meetings on the subject are any indication of what lies ahead but City Manager Karen Diemer said she believes that is a fair estimate of how long the process will take.

"I'm encouraging people — with any ideas they have and any offers they want to make — to bring them into the process," she said.

Then there's the estimated price tag — including some $15,000 solely for the physical removal of the nearly 9-foot statue and its accompanying 40-piece, 26-ton granite base — which comes in at $40,000 to $65,000.

Arcata farmer George Zehndner paid $15,000 for his monument to the nation's 25th president — the first major work by renowned Armenian sculptor Haig Patigian — back at the turn of the 20th century.

"It's very, very far from over," said Dan Hauser, a longtime Arcata resident and former mayor who also penned a letter to the council saying he was "disappointed and surprised to see how badly the city council got rolled by a vocal mob."

"I'm concerned that they set a precedent for future issues," he said.

Hauser, who retired as Arcata's city manager in 2006, said he and others — including attorneys — will be watching the process closely to ensure city funds are not used to "do something that a majority of people in the city have no interest in doing."

"It would more appropriate that those who are the advocates raise the money to do the General Plan Amendment, the Environmental Impact Report and the cost of relocating," he told the Journal in an interview this week.

According to the city, at least one community member has committed to raising the funds.

While the effort and resources needed were acknowledged by some speakers at last week's meeting, the majority focused on their view that the time had more than come for a tribute to a man known for pushing American interventionism to be removed from the plaza.

Those included Chris Peters, a more than 20-year resident, who talked about how many Native people avoid Arcata — the site of systematic atrocities — because of the "historic trauma the city represents."

"Let's take a stand here for justice," he told the council, "for what is right, and let's not let politics overstep your moral obligation here today."

The sole dissenting vote on McKinley's fate was from Winkler, who said he believes the issue should go before city residents as a ballot measure, one of several options staff had proposed.

"We're elected by the citizens of Arcata and we need to give the citizens of Arcata a chance to decide this," he said.

Afterward, he wrote a letter to Mayor Sofia Pereira saying he was "appalled by the lynch mob/vigilante atmosphere that prevailed" at the meeting and called on her to "firmly re-establish an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for all points of view."

"I strongly personally feel — and many members of the public have expressed to me their belief — that because of the hostile atmosphere that we have tolerated at the council meetings on the issue of the statue, that the process is unfair," Winkler wrote.

There were a few tense moments during the meeting, with some audience members heckling a speaker who voiced the minority view that McKinley should be celebrated as a Civil War veteran who dedicated his life to public service before he was felled by an assassin's bullet. 

There was also shouting back at council members, at times, including comments directed at Ornelas when she tried to explain why she understood Winkler's point of taking the matter to a vote, noting "everyone has something to say about this." 

She soon gave up, saying simply, "I'm done."

For her part, Pereira told the Journal via email that she disagrees with Winkler's assessment and use of the term "lynch mob," saying that the "decision wasn't based solely on who was in the room that night."

"I won't disparage my constituents and community members for exercising their First Amendment rights," she wrote. "We had an audience of Indigenous elders and leaders; parents and seniors; teachers and students. We had people attending their first meeting and learning the public process. Yes, there was a lot of energy in the room with over 100 people attending."

Pereira added there are obviously strong feelings on the issue and she used her "best judgment to keep the meeting moving forward, encouraging civility and respect for all opinions."

Meanwhile, legal action could be in the city's future.

A newly formed group with a Facebook and GoFundMe page titled Save Arcata's McKinley Statue had raised $275 of its $1,000 goal by Tuesday morning, and says its "goal is to hire an attorney to quickly file a request for a temporary injunction to stop the city from removing the statue."

The GoFundMe page states there "is currently a PC trend to destroy historic statues of old white men and there was discussion, among a few extremists, that there should be a vote to remove the Statue of President McKinley. ... Few of the rest of us gave it any worry as we knew it would never pass. So, we were all SHOCKED when our city council bypassed the people of Arcata and voted to remove this piece of history on their own!"

If successful in obtaining an injunction, the group states the next step would be to "conduct a signature campaign to force the council to allow a vote of the people of Arcata."

For all the controversy brewing over McKinley's statue, the council's unanimous decision to remove a 1963 plaque denoting the Jacoby Building's status as a California Registered Historic Landmark, which includes the affronting wording that "it served periodically as a refuge in time of Indian troubles," has been rather straightforward.

Bill Chino, the building's current owner, has already volunteered to help replace the plaque and work with a group to come up with new wording that will need to be reviewed by State Office of Historic Preservation. The estimated cost is $4,000.

Still undecided is what will ultimately happen to McKinley's statue, although Councilmember Brett Watson suggested it "should leave the city."

Pereira noted that the "gravity of this decision is not lost on this council or this community."

"I know this is a divisive community issue but I want to say thank you to everyone who participated in this process," she said after the vote.

For Pitino's part, taking down McKinley's statue should just be the start.

"I have to say that when I look at the statue of McKinley, and all that, I'm glad that we agreed to get rid of the statue and I'd love to see the town north of us not be called McKinleyville anymore," he said.

Pereira was quick to respond.

"We'll leave that for another day," she said pausing briefly before continuing, "and another community to decide."

Since the vote, Pereira told the Journal the feedback has been mostly positive about removing the statue, mixed in with what she described as some negative or inaccurate responses.

"We aren't melting it down, we aren't throwing it in the bay — we are relocating the statue from the center of our plaza to another site in Arcata that will be determined through a public process," she said. "The statue is a part of our history and finding an appropriate location is a priority. I encourage community members to stay engaged on this issue as we move forward."

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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About The Author

Kimberly Wear

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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