Hot Water

Opposing loyalties create friction in McKinleyville's CSD race



As an unincorporated town, McKinleyville has no mayor, city manager or city council, but it does have a community services district board, which manages the burgeoning burg's water and wastewater infrastructure as well as its parks and library. And in recent years, that municipal body has provided enough controversy and political heat to rival any area town. Most CSDs tend toward the blandly bureaucratic. But here, in defiance of the rapidly multiplying tract home developments, the Beau Pre golf course and the drive-thru Starbucks, there's still some frontier grit in the community craw, as evidenced by the run-up to Nov. 3's MCSD election.

Six candidates, including two incumbents, are vying for three of the five seats on the district board. During the next term, the board will be tasked with improving its wastewater treatment system to meet stricter state contamination guidelines. With the permanent closure of the Evergreen Pulp Mill, the district also will be forced to raise water rates. And Measure B, a voter-approved bond that financed the development of the McKinleyville Activity Center, Azalea Hall and the Hiller Sports site, is due to sunset in fiscal year 2011/2012.

While the board is technically non-partisan, old allegiances divide the contenders. On Monday, chiropractor Bill Wennerholm, one of two incumbents running for reelection (Dennis Mayo is the other) gave his opinion on why Vice President Jeff Dunk chose not to seek reelection.

"Frankly, he took a lot of heat ...," Wennerholm said. "I think he just got fed up with it." In 2006, Dunk was embroiled in a conflict-of-interest scandal involving a property deal he and his wife negotiated with a developer who had business with the district. Wennerholm called Dunk "an intelligent, good guy" but said they often disagreed politically. And in McKinleyville, nobody public pussy-foots around disagreements. "[Serving on the board] takes a certain attitude," Wennerholm said. "He [Dunk] didn't realize, I think, that it can be pretty nasty. And it is, man. People say things to me that are not very nice and friendly. [People] from the community or people who believe differently than you do -- they want to argue and fight."

David Couch, a water/wastewater operator with the City of Arcata, is among four other candidates vying for a seat. He garnered the endorsement of the Humboldt Democratic Central Committee and claims it's the current board, not the community, that's responsible for the combative tone -- and Wennerholm in particular. "The board is really rude to people," Couch said. "If you go speak at the public session, Wennerholm is sarcastic and makes fun of people, and other people [on the board] just don't respond to anything the public brings up."

Couch also believes the board has been too passive, allowing themselves to be misled by former General Manager Tom Marking, who was himself mired in controversy during his tenure in the district. Marking resigned last year amid accusations of poor communication and belligerence toward the board. Couch believes it was Marking who convinced the board to establish its current wastewater treatment system, which he called "a $300 million boondoggle." He also accused the district of trying to "double-dip" by offering use of its treatment plant to a developer -- a proposal nixed by county officials.

Wennerholm vehemently denied being subservient to Marking but admitted that public meetings can get heated. "I think all of us at one time or another might come off as a bit rude," he said. "But there's more behind it. ... When you go to those board meetings, you've been working 10 to 12 hours. People say stuff so off the top. They accuse you of stuff. You're just human. ... I wouldn't take some of that stuff from my kids." He charged Couch with being part of a group including political action committee Local Solutions and activists like Richard Salzman and Ken Miller -- all of whom, he said, "feel very strongly about closing down Humboldt County." Getting rid of Marking was part of their agenda, said Wennerholm, and now, he added, they're trying to get a majority on the MCSD board.

Candidate Penny Elsebusch, a real estate agent, said she's been attending MCSD meetings for more than 16 years. "Sometimes it seemed like no matter who said what, [the decisions] seemed predetermined," she said. (Though the process has improved under new General Manager Norman Shopay, she asserted.) Elsebusch said her background in business and accounting, combined with her dedication to public service, qualify her for a seat on the board. "I listen to people," she said. "I think communication with the community is an important factor." She favors an assessment fee rather than a bond to replace Measure B funds.

Another challenger, Coast Central Realty President Dave Varshock, returned a Journal phone call shortly before deadline with a blast of McKinleyville gusto. "Hey man," he said, "I've been busier than a one-legged man in butt-kicking contest." He went on to say he'd like to serve on the MCSD as a way of giving back to the community, which he called "a moral obligation." And he credits Wennerholm with instilling that idea by chiding him at an MCSD meeting. "He said, 'Don't you know that government is run by those who show up?'" Varshock recalled. "While some might have construed that as rude, I took it as direct."

All candidates reached by the Journal expressed a desire for increased attendance at MCSD meetings, which often hovers around half a dozen or so. Calls to incumbent Dennis Mayo and challenger Jake Pickering were not returned by deadline.

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