By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If one election-season moment has captured the differences in how the three Cotati City Council candidates view the state of their city, it came in the 40th minute of a Sept. 30 debate.
The candidates were answering a question from the audience: “How would you make Cotati a healthier place to live?”
Councilmembers Mark Landman, a former fire captain, and Pat Gilardi, an advertising saleswoman, spoke about better pedestrian and bicycle routes, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pressing Caltrans to make safety improvements to Highway 116.
Challenger George Barich, a video producer, said “our children and grown ups … have to urinate and defecate in the bushes or go down to the police department” because the city locked many of its park restrooms to cut costs.
Such statements are signatures of Barich’s candidacy, in which he has cast himself as a “moderate” alternative to “five far-left progressives,” and again make him a focal point of an election.
The former councilman — he was recalled in 2009 after a year in office — often uses dire language to describe the city’s condition.
He says Cotati is balancing its budget on overly rosy sales tax revenue projections and so it faces fiscal “disaster.”
(Revenues from the city sales tax measure passed in April are now estimated at $533,000 a year for the next two fiscal years, down from the $600,000 to $900,000 a year officials projected earlier).
Barich, 52, also says that what he describes as the city’s lack of responsiveness to public correspondence and concerns is “a travesty, an embarrassment.”
Plus, the council, he says, has endangered the public by delaying repairs to the roof at City Hall.
By contrast — and predictably — incumbents Landman and Gilardi say the city is moving on with renewed vigor.
They point to this year’s balanced city budget — the first one in six years. They highlight recently signed contracts with the city’s police officers and police management that lowered the cost to the city of employee pension and medical benefits.
They contend that the half-cent sales tax measure they successfully pushed for, and that Barich opposed, has stabilized city finances, buying them time to build a firm footing for the future, and allowing them to hire another police officer.
“I think you’ve just begun to see some of the good work we will be able to do for you,” Landman, 56, said at the debate.
The campaign so far has been marked with the same acrimony that dominated the recall campaign against Barich, and most of his council tenure.
A website launched last week uses public documents in an attempt to rebut Barich’s campaign claims. The website carries no identification and its registrants’ names are blocked. Landman and Gilardi said they have nothing to do with it.
Barich and his supporters call it a last-minute smear campaign.
As a councilman, Barich was at the center of controversies ranging from his refusal to declare the city in a fiscal crisis — a declaration that needed to be unanimous for the city to seek a sales tax — to his posting a photograph of himself in blackface on his personal website.
Those actions haven’t been significant issues this election cycle. Instead, Landman and Gilardi have spotlighted other issues in Barich’s past, including his 1996 arrest and later conviction on charges of growing marijuana for sale, a crop that police said had an estimated street value of $2.5 million.
At the Sept. 30 debate, the incumbents each pointedly noted that they’d never been arrested. They made the same statement in responses to questions from The Press Democrat’s political website, WatchSonomaCounty.com.
Barich pleaded no contest to the charges and received a three-year probation term. He said that tenants in his home and business had been growing the pot but wouldn’t reveal their names to police.
Barich said bringing up the issue was a hypocritical dirty trick that illustrates how “desperate” his opponents are.
He pointed out that when he ran for council in 2004, Landman signed his nomination papers. And he said nothing he’s done is equivalent to what Landman and Gilardi have done, which he describes as bringing the city “to its knees.”
Landman this week said he didn’t know in 2004 that Barich had been arrested.
“This points to exactly why it’s so important for people to know about their candidates. Because if my neighbors and I had known who he really was, we would never have signed his petition,” said Landman, who was appointed to the council in 2009 to fill the seat vacated by former Mayor Jon Guardino.
Gilardi, 51, said voters should know about the arrest.
“I think that the integrity of the individual who’s running is important and that is certainly something that differentiates me from my opponent,” said Gilardi, who has served on the council since 2000.