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The McKinley Divide 

Council to hear proposal on an advisory vote

click to enlarge mckinley-3.jpg

Photo by Sam Armanino

So, remember a few weeks ago, when the Arcata City Council voted 4-1 to take down the statue of President William McKinley? Well, things have gotten a bit more complicated.

Now it appears the statue's situation might go to some sort of vote after all — one of the options staff had recommended in the first place — with the flickering possibility of a do-over thrown into the mix.

Councilmember Susan Ornelas dropped her McKinley bombshell at the end of the council's March 7 meeting — a time normally reserved for mundane reports on the pancake breakfasts or recently attended conferences.

Noting the vast amount of feedback she and others on the council have received in the wake of their Feb. 21 vote to remove the statue, Ornelas brought up the idea of having a multiple-choice vote on where to relocate the statue — with one of the options being leaving it in the plaza center.

That, of course, is where the controversial bronze — the first major work by renown sculptor Haig Patigian — has stood since 1906, when it was dedicated to the city during a Fourth of July celebration by Arcata farmer and McKinley enthusiast George Zehndner.

"We've made a decision that it should be moved from the plaza center, so where should it go? We haven't come up with that and some people are very frustrated about that," Ornelas said, noting that a poll — either during the November election or via a mail ballot — could strengthen the upcoming environmental review process, which she added should have a "no-project alternative."

A handout Ornelas distributed to other councilmembers as she spoke suggests an "advisory vote," with a series options ranging from the plaza center to relocating the statue to local sites like the Arcata Veterans Hall and the Phillips House, or out-of-area locales like the Haig Patigian Art Museum in Oakland and McKinley's Presidential Library in Ohio.

At the end of her somewhat circuitous narrative, Ornelas asked for and quickly received support from two councilmembers — Brett Watson and Michael Winkler, who'd been the sole dissenting vote on McKinley's fate at the council's prior meeting — to bring the concept back before the council.

But not everyone was on board. "Just so you know, No," Councilmember Paul Pitino replied emphatically, later emphasizing that he didn't want to see his motion to take down the statue circumvented.

City Manager Karen Diemer said in an email Tuesday that she anticipates an item "to consider a process for the registered voters of Arcata to ... provide a preference for the disposition of the President McKinley statue" will likely go before the council March 21, but the agenda had not yet been finalized.

She added that the city was talking with county election officials about how that might work and "this new agenda item would not include a discussion about a motion to reconsider the original vote."

At the March 7 meeting, Diemer told councilmembers that she had received emails and offers regarding the statue "that we need to vet and see if they're even real before bringing them forward."

"I think the hope was that something was just going to naturally come forward that tends to resonate well with the community and the council," she said.

Meanwhile, a community Facebook group, "Let the People Vote on the McKinley Statue," which also has a GoFundMe page that as of Tuesday had raised $680 to hire an attorney to file a temporary injunction against the removal, was celebrating the development.

A March 9 post on the page states Ornelas "blurred the issue by also listing other places the statue could be moved to, but it does include the option to leave the statue where it is."

"I think we should all be thankful to Susan Ornelas for doing the right thing. We should all be cautiously optimistic and see how the council votes on the issue," the post states.

As Ornelas was explaining her reasoning — seeming to simultaneously defend the decision to remove McKinley while also saying some residents felt "their right to be heard was taken away" — she described how she'd spent the last month reading about U.S. and Native American history while sipping coffee on Saturday mornings, along with digesting the "huge amount of information" the council received on local history, the statue and McKinley.

That, Ornelas said, led her on a "journey" that culminated in her Feb. 21 vote to take McKinley down.

"My mind changed during that time but I realize that we didn't necessarily bring everyone along with us in the town and so, when we made this decision, that seemed harsh to some people," Ornelas said. "They couldn't even believe we were ready to make a decision and, truly, I mean, if anyone was paying attention it was in the agenda. I mean, it was fairly clear but I have come to understand a lot of people did feel left out."

Ornelas suggested perhaps there could be a "town effort" around the theme of "the late the 1800s, early 1900s, U.S. history, McKinley's presidency, Native American history in Northern California" to help "bring people along."

In an interview with the Journal this week, Watson said that his opinion hasn't changed and, while he doesn't oppose taking the statue down or spending city money to do so, "I just don't think the path we're taking to do that is the best path."

"To me, I just want to know, it's important to know, how the people of Arcata feel about it," he said, noting it's not about reconsidering the original vote but the decision does involve a city park and spending taxpayer money. "It's about giving people a decision on where to move the statue to ... but also incorporating an education component."

He pointed to the example of Auschwitz, which stands as a monument to educate people about the atrocities committed there, saying maybe a similar route could be taken with McKinley's statue, perhaps through a plaque or other means to provide context.

"Once you get rid of the statue, that conversation is not going to happen anymore," Watson said.

Watson said he asked City Attorney Nancy Diamond at the March 7 meeting about whether it would be appropriate to bring the item back as a motion to reconsider — which would have required a two-thirds majority vote to be heard — as a process question, but Ornelas made it clear that was not her intent.

Regardless of what the actual agenda item looks like, one thing seems abundantly clear: A large turnout from both sides of the McKinley divide is likely to be on hand, considering that a standing-room-only crowd was present for the Feb. 21 decision that came after nearly three hours of public comment.

"The fun continues," Mayor Sofia Pereira said as she wrapped up discussion about Ornelas' advisory vote proposal at the March 7 meeting.

Kimberly Wear is the Journal's assistant editor. 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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