Opinion Piece By Bob Kaster
It’s that time again. Election season. Yard signs growing in people’s front yards. Mailboxes jammed with junk mail, and personalized emails from people I never heard of: “Dear Bob, I urge you and other supporters like you to rush $50 so I can keep the (insert ‘democrats’ or ‘republicans’ here, as applicable) from destroying our democracy.”
There is an old saying that “all politics is local.” Well, that’s going on full-steam here in Yreka with the upcoming race for City Council, with six people running for three positions. It’s pretty intense, more than I remember in the past, and I’ve lived here a long time. But it might also be more important than in the past, because the outcome can have significant impact on the direction that our city takes. In this column I don’t intend to endorse any particular candidate or candidates. But I do want to make some “old-timer’s” observations about our city, and the direction it should take.
These observations come from 50 years of living here, and at various times having been directly involved with the workings of the city’s government. In 1972 after completing my US Air Force tour of duty I went to work for a Yreka law firm with a general practice, a significant portion of which was local government, representing cities, irrigation districts, and other local agencies in the county. Larry Bacon was the Yreka city attorney at that time, a job he had taken over from Jim Kleaver after Jim was appointed to the Superior Court bench. Before that, the city attorney position was held by Joe Correia for many years. When I joined the firm, I became city attorney for other Siskiyou cities, including Weed and Montague, and was attorney for the Montague Water Conservation District. I was backup for Larry Bacon for Yreka, the “B-Team” so to speak. I’m providing this background simply to let you know that my interest and involvement in city government goes beyond that of the average citizen.
My concern about the current election is that it appears to have become a referendum on a single issue, the swimming pool project. A recent newspaper headline proclaims “A very sad day for our kids in Yreka,” followed by “Council vote to return $8.5M grant puts end to Yreka swim park project.” The headline of a separate opinion piece in the “Siskiyou Voices” newspaper column shouted, “We just got screwed out of a pool!” The opinion piece specifically blamed the city manager, the city planner, and a councilwoman for “killing this state grant funded project with their last minute guesses on potential costs.” The piece concluded with, “The city’s deplorable actions have cost the current and future people of Yreka a modern well-built swimming pool that would meet the current and future needs of yreka for the next 50 years. There will never again be an opportunity to build a multi-use pool for such a small cost to the citizens of Yreka.”
Thus, the swimming pool issue appears to drive the greater-than-usual interest and contentiousness of the current election cycle. I would urge readers to consider the larger picture when casting your votes November 8. Sure, it would be great to have a pool, but the City Council’s job is far greater than that. It has the awesome responsibility for marshalling the city’s problematical revenue stream in a businesslike manner to benefit its citizens. The city already owns physical assets it cannot maintain. Examples of this are the community theater and the tennis courts, plus now-defunct Ringe pool. Swimming pools are high-maintenance to begin with, and the proposed project was tailored more toward fulfilling the objectives of the grant-maker than solving the real needs of the community. Without a realistic plan for its maintenance, it was foolhardy. To put it in perspective, the YMCA, a successful institution that has made our county a much better place, has since its inception considered the prospect of building a pool and rejected it. Why? It wasn’t because of the inability to raise the funds for the initial construction. It was because the Y’s board members believed the cost to maintain it would overwhelm and destroy the institution.
I don’t envy the three people who will prevail in the upcoming election, but they have my admiration and best wishes. They will have to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. The unfortunate reality is that the issues facing small cities everywhere are more intense and unmanageable at a time when revenues and resources are harder to find. The Yreka Elks lodge recently sponsored a candidate’s debate forum where the six candidates were asked to identify the most pressing issues facing the city. A partial list of their responses included: homelessness, crime, lack of jobs and business opportunities, the city’s “run-down” look, maintaining a viable downtown business area, unhealthy conditions at Greenhorn Park, empty buildings, drugs on the street, and affordable housing. Some are unique to the 21st century. Who would have thought twenty years ago that homelessness in Yreka would have reached the crisis point that now exists?
The whole point of my diatribe today is to urge voters not to get hung up on a single issue, the swimming pool, but to look at the big picture. I personally believe that the recent campaign to build a pool via the $8.5M grant, was misplaced. I believe the location to be bad, the development and construction cost estimate understated, and the mechanism for maintaining it in the future inadequate. There are people who disagree with me on this, and reasonable minds can differ. And there are people who have worked tirelessly and diligently on this project, and have every reason to be disappointed and maybe even enraged at the abrupt manner it ended. But, unlike some commentators, I believe that that there will be future opportunities and funding sources to ultimately enable the reconstruction and maintenance of a municipal pool at Ringe Park, the ideal location, a position that Jason Ledbetter, the city’s young city manager agrees with.
Jason Ledbetter’s vision is for the city to create a three-year strategic revenue plan, something the city doesn’t currently have. This strategic revenue plan would dovetail with the city’s general plan, which it is required by law to update every 20 years or so, but would more specifically project anticipated revenues and develop a planned strategy for how those revenues can be best utilized. It would be more than a “projects list.” It is not uncommon in today’s political world for candidates to seize upon a shiny object to support in their quest to be elected, such as a new swimming pool. Ledbetter’s proposed strategic revenue plan would be a mechanism for the newly elected council in January to prioritize its goals and plan for how those goals can be accomplished with reasonably anticipated revenue, including providing for the city’s critical infrastructure. The way this idea fits in with Yreka’s need for a pool is this: Ledbetter believes there is money out there, such as the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, one of Congress’ pandemic stimulus programs. But to be in the best position to attract grant funds the city should be pro-active and have in place professionally-developed engineering and design plans, costs which generally can be recouped if grant funds are accessed. One thing that has been largely overlooked during the swimming pool grant fiasco is that if a new pool is built out on Foothill Drive, the now-defunct Ringe pool is still there, an eyesore and maybe a public nuisance, which might cost the city a million dollars or more to abate. Wouldn’t it be better to take a better look at Ringe Park as a whole, with its ball fields and other amenities as well as the swimming pool? It’s in the perfect location, and the setting is lovely. Ledbetter has a vision of how it can be improved. A strategic revenue plan would realistically prioritize the city’s assets, of which Ringe Park is one of many, and provide for the proactive maintenance and care of those assets for future generations. Perhaps what happened to Ringe pool is an example of why the city needs a strategic revenue plan.
I hope the citizens of our city will look at the larger issues in deciding who to vote for. And I hope the citizens will be supportive of our city manager and his staff as they work hard to keep Yreka the city we love. For you old-timers out there, Jason Ledbetter reminds me of Jim Dillon, who served as Yreka’s city manager back in the seventies and eighties. He’s young, intelligent, and driven to develop and implement a strategic plan to make the city thrive. And, he’s not afraid to make the tough and sometimes unpopular decisions to make that happen.
Bob Kaster is a long-time Yreka resident and retired Superior Court Judge. In retirement, he has taken up creative and journalistic writing, including novels, short stories and essays.
His thriller novels and The Great Yreka Courthouse Gold Heist, his documentary account of the 2012 theft of the gold display from Yreka’s courthouse, are available at Zephyr Books in Yreka and from Amazon.
Email Bob at [email protected].
To see some of his other writings, check out his website