The upcoming off-year election is kicking up a bit of dust in McKinleyville, that unincorporated burg of 15,000 where horses, its motto proclaims, have the right of way. Four people are trying to squeeze into three seats on the McKinleyville Community Services District — three incumbents and one retired professor who hope to have a chair when the music stops on Nov. 5.
Candidates say the district is facing several issues: a lack of community interest, the board's thorny attitude, marijuana growers and the long-debated direction of McKinleyville's growth.
Up for re-election are Dennis Mayo, a rancher and the current board president; Bill Wennerholm, a chiropractor who has served on the board for 12 years; and David Couch, a wastewater operator elected in 2009. Running for the first time is George Wheeler, a retired Humboldt State computer information sciences professor.
Since McKinleyville has no city government, the services district offers some of the only local control. It delivers water and sewer services to McKinleyville homes and businesses, maintains parks and streetlights, and offers some library services. Other community services, like planning and law enforcement, are handled by the county. Whether the district should expand its powers (it could, with funding) or if the community should become a city have been talking points for years.
Put simply: More services require more money. And more money requires residents' approval of a funding plan — increased property taxes, bond measures or sales taxes.
Candidates differ on whether the district's services should expand — but they all believe that McKinleyville's voters aren't keen on raising the costs of living there, even if it meant additional services.
Wheeler, who's running for public office for the first time, wants the services district to build a solar farm to cover the its energy costs and, in the long-term, sell electricity. "Then we'd be arguing over what to do with the money instead of whether to raise rates again," he said.
Wennerholm, who's been a services director longer than any other board member, said the district has already evaluated — and rejected — the idea of using solar power because the project didn't make financial sense. "If you're going to promise something, at least understand what the board has the ability to deal with," he said.
Wheeler likes the idea of having sheriff's deputies dedicated to patrolling McKinleyville — which he said could be done for $1.50 a month charged to each McKinleyville home. Give that money to the county, get a couple of cops in exchange. Wheeler hopes the idea will resonate with older voters.
But Dennis Mayo said that was a rosy figure. "That much money is only providing the deputies — not the cars or the training or the equipment or the dispatchers or the workman's comp."
Wennerholm said it would change the policing dynamic of the community as well, possibly leading to less law enforcement response when the dedicated deputies were off duty.
"People sit and they figure on their little pads," he said. "The reality is, it's 24 hours a day. It's a lot of overhead and infrastructure which we're not set up for."
Meanwhile, eyes in McKinleyville are focusing on a new electricity-usage tax in neighboring Arcata, which targets indoor marijuana growers. People in McKinleyville — and other cities and suburbs around the county — fear that the higher costs of growing in Arcata will lead to an exodus, and growers will swarm in elsewhere.
So what can be done? Not much, agreed the candidates. It's up to the county to implement a similar tax in hopes of discouraging growers, who are already a problem for the services district. "McKinleyville probably has more indoor growers than Arcata does," Wennerholm said.
The district has the power to deal with industrial sites that can overburden wastewater treatment, but no similar recourse for household growers whose nutrients and chemicals can inundate McKinleyville's wastewater plant.
Then there's the future of McKinleyville's development.
The relationship with county planners has been somewhat strained since the county earmarked some McKinleyville land for affordable housing. "That was really universally unpopular in McKinleyville," Couch said, but he's ambivalent about the services district spending the money to create its own planning department. Mayo said the district already plays a role in development. "We can be and are a major part of planning, in that we provide the essential services."
Wheeler took no stand on the financial part of the planning issue, but added that "people in McKinleyville should have the final word on what's built in McKinleyville."
The services district has somewhat of a prickly reputation. During his 2009 campaign, Couch told the Journal that the board was "rude to people."
That's being brought up again this year by Wheeler, the non-incumbent. When he came to the board several years ago with concerns about herbicides being used on a nearby lot, Wheeler said, he was met with a difficult and "draconian" process to get his concerns taken up by the board.
With that issue resolved, he wants to attract people to meetings by making them more fun — or at least more accommodating. Even the physical layout of the meetings — the staff with its back to the public, a podium blocking view of the directors — excludes the public, Wheeler said.
"It's not laid at the feet of any specific board member," he said, it's just an attitude of the board he'd like to see change. "Open up this circle-the-wagons thing that's going on."
But Wennerholm said community members aren't attending board meetings because they're happy with the way things are going. "When there's not a squeaky wheel nobody's looking at it."
Several recent issues — water fluoridation and a community skate park — have brought the public to district meetings in decent numbers, but attendance typically hovers around two people.
With more projects on the horizon, including a $10 million wastewater treatment plant and creation of a riverside park off North Bank Road, Couch and Wheeler said they'd like to see more participation. •