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Fort Bragg City Council gets to work on citizens commission recommendations

Seal of the City of Fort Bragg, California, featuring a redwood tree and a leaping salmon.
Seal of the City of Fort Bragg, California, featuring a redwood tree and a leaping salmon.

The Fort Bragg City Council voted to order the new mayor to appoint committees to work on educational and historical initiatives recommended by a citizens commission that was tasked to research residents' thoughts on changing the city's name, and to address issues of systemic racism.

November 17, 2022 — The Fort Bragg City Council voted this week to carry out six recommendations by a citizens commission that was convened in 2020 to find out if changing the city’s name was supported by its residents.

Fort Bragg was named for Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general who never set foot in the town but was highly respected by a soldier who served with him in the U.S. Mexican war. Bragg also took part in the Second Seminole War against the indigenous people in what is now the state of Florida.

In the summer of 2020, as the country entered a racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Fort Bragg City Council considered a ballot measure asking residents if they wanted to change the city’s name. The question led to an in-person City Council meeting in the midst of the pandemic, where members of the public spoke for hours on a wide variety of opinions regarding the history of the city and the nation, and which aspects of it deserve what kind of emphasis.

The council convened a citizens’ commission to research the question and “the deeper systemic issue of racism.” The commission met for more than sixty hours over the course of a year and a half. Earlier this year, it came back to the City Council with six recommendations, not including a name change.

The most complicated of those was to craft a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, between the Council, the school district, and local tribes, to present “a more complete and inclusive history of the local area,” according to a staff memo attached to this week’s agenda. City Manager Peggy Ducey said she expected the negotiations around crafting the MOU would form the “backbone” of the city’s approach to the rest of the recommendations.

“I couldn’t go into those meetings and sit and tell the tribal groups what’s important to them and what’s not important,” she told the Council. “But as we look into this MOU, we’re needing something that’s meaningful, not something that simply has words of, we’re going to get along and play together nicely.”

An ad hoc committee including two City Council members will get to work on the MOU in January. The makeup of the Council is expected to change significantly in the new year.*

Two more recommendations were creating a cultural center and appointing a local history working group to educate the community and its visitors about the role of indigenous people in the area. Mary Rose Kaczorowski, a candidate for City Council, spoke about her hopes for the cultural center.

“I hope that the city recognizes that this should not just be us Europeans who have ideas, but the Native tribes be telling their own story without our interference, '' she said. “Because some of the archives that I have seen by cultural institutions are not accurate, and also have racist tones.”

Council member Marcia Rafanan asked Cristal Muñoz, a city administrative analyst, to specify which tribes would be involved in making decisions, and alluded to the complexity of the task ahead.

“It says tribes. Local tribes,” she noted. “Can you define that a little more, please?”

Muñoz replied that the Sherwood Band of Pomo Indians have been involved with negotiations around the Blue Economy, “so I think that’s where we would start, and then invite any other tribes that would be interested, in.”

“Okay,” Rafanan said. “And that could get messy, too.” She noted that one inland tribe has gatherings on a local coastal property. “Thank you, Cristal,” she concluded.

Muñoz expects some of the recommendations will tie in with one another. She outlined a scenario where the educational initiatives, including an outdoor public event, could lead to funding opportunities as state priorities begin to lean more favorably toward Native Americans, particularly AB 1703, the California Indian Education Act, which encourages local Indian Education Task Forces.

“So the parallel plan, number two, will be the creation of a local working history group,” she explained. “The working history group will coordinate with the historical society to develop these activities, to create a meeting space, and to seek grant funding for historical plaques, trails, and other informational materials. The second part of that would be to organize the North Coast Day. This could be done with the Visit Fort Bragg to develop an inclusive and diverse community event on the coastal trail. This would be a kickoff for the fundraiser for a potential cultural center, and then also to seek grants to fund the cultural center.”

A recommendation to create a policy that would prioritize returning lands to local coastal tribes does not seem to be fully fleshed out yet, according to Vice-Mayor Jessica Morsell Haye, who chaired the citizens commission.

“It would basically be a policy that would cause city staff, whatever the project is, to stop and look and see if there is an opportunity to shift some of the property or give some land back to local tribes, '' she said. “In the conversations, we didn’t discuss funding for direct acquisition to then pass over. It was more about adding it to the thinking so that it would just be intrinsic within city logic, looking for those opportunities. But I was the chair, not one of the decision makers. But that was my take.”

Council member Tess Albin Smith alluded to the commission’s year and a half of meetings as she voiced her concern.

“I am still troubled by the lack of milestones,” she said. “I’m the kind of person, if you have an MOU, you have certain milestones you hope to have done. Otherwise the thing just flounders, you know, it’s just a group getting together to talk about stuff.”

The Council voted unanimously to get started on the recommendations, put out a notice that it is forming a historical committee, in addition to the ad hoc committee, and make the first order of the new mayor to appoint the committees in the new year.

*This article has been edited to correct a misstatement about the number of incumbents running for re-election to the Fort Bragg City Council. Three incumbents, not two, ran in a race consisting of eleven candidates, not ten. According to the November 18 tally, incumbent Lindy Peters is in the lead, with 77.73% of the vote, followed by newcomers Jason Godeke, with 25.63%, and Alberto Aldaco, with 22.27%. Incumbent Marcia Rafanan received 16.39% of the vote, and incumbent Tess Albin-Smith garnered 11.03%. The final results will be available after the election is certified, within 30 days of the November 8 election.

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.