By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For Petaluma voters, the City Council and mayoral election Nov. 2 provide a distinct choice: reinforcement of the current progressive majority or a change to pro-business interests.
Or perhaps voters will split the difference in the four seats they will be asked to fill. If a sitting councilman wins the mayor’s race, his seat — to be appointed by the newly configured council — could become an all-important swing vote.
Four candidates are vying for the mayor’s post and nine for the three council seats on the ballot, although two mayoral candidates and one council hopeful haven’t campaigned.
All but one of the serious candidates generally fit into either the progressive or pro-business camps.
Members of the current 4-3 majority on the council call themselves proponents of “smart growth,” a set of planning ideologies that stress transit-oriented development and strict environmental oversight of proposed developments.
The minority calls itself more business-friendly, contending that the city’s general plan and zoning codes provide most necessary planning oversight.
While both sides maintain they aren’t running as slates, three progressive candidates — incumbents David Glass and Teresa Barrett, along with Jason Davies — appear on a mailer cross-endorsing each other and touting an endorsement from the outgoing progressive mayor, Pam Torliatt.
“The winning team for Petaluma,” it states.
Meanwhile, three pro-business candidates — Jeff Mayne, Ray Johnson and incumbent Mike Harris — are managed by the same political strategist, Herb Williams of Santa Rosa.
Former Fire Chief Chris Albertson and former councilwoman Karen Nau are unabashedly pro-business. Gabe Kearney, a member of several Democratic groups, is among the progressives.
Wyatt Bunker is the most independent candidate, running on the platform of cutting public employees’ salaries and pensions, what he calls “government rewards programs.”
The political season has sparked an unusually public show of discontent from a coalition of unions representing nearly all of Petaluma’s 300 municipal employees. They bought half-page ads in the local newspapers to say they had lost faith in city leadership.
The union activism surfaced this summer after the council voted 4-3 to adopt a 2010-2011 budget in which spending outpaces revenue by $1 million and leaves the city with just $5,000 in reserve. Reserves were at $8 million three years ago.
“We had a reasonable expectation that our city leaders had a plan to bring about economic recovery — they do not, and our community’s economic future appears even more bleak today,” the union ad states.
Union leaders say employees feel the city betrayed them by cutting workers and seeking salary concessions while delaying approval of tax-generating retail business projects that could help alleviate budget woes.
The police, fire and other employee unions also have paid for billboards in Petaluma supporting Mayne, Harris, Johnson and Albertson.
It’s the mayor’s race that offers perhaps the clearest choice between the status quo or a new direction.
Mayne, president of the Petaluma Downtown Association, accuses Glass of being an obstructionist, allegedly by blocking new businesses that want to come to Petaluma.
“I am running for mayor to stop the delays, prevent obstacles like repetitive studies and wasteful legal costs associated with the way our current council conducts business,” he said. “Rigid agendas, such as the ‘slow growth’ actions of the current council majority, cause divisiveness and exclude participation by others.”
Glass defends his majority’s handling of large developments such as the recently approved Target-based East Washington Place, saying the developments are better for the closer scrutiny imposed during the planning process. The council on which Glass was a member in 2004 unanimously approved negotiating with the developer on the condition that it include at least 300,000 square feet of retail space.
Glass touts his belief that the economic catalysts for Petaluma will be the SMART train, currently scheduled to begin service in 2014, and transit-oriented development surrounding it.
The council race is muddier, with eight serious candidates vying for three spots.
Barrett, Davies and Kearney represent the progressive left, which would reinforce the current council majority that, with Glass, Barrett and Torliatt, also includes Tiffany Renee.
The more centrist candidates Nau, Johnson, Harris and Albertson would join Mike Healy, who with Harris and outgoing Councilman David Rabbitt, now make up the council minority.
Bunker offers perhaps the most conservative views, comparatively. He stresses spending cuts more than the others, who tend to focus first on new or expanded revenues.
He said the city has depleted its reserves after “years of awarding higher salaries, pensions and benefits to employees in lieu of caring for infrastructure.”
Barrett proposes regionalizing city services to save money and increasing the hotel tax to raise revenue. She said she feels confident voters support her.
Harris is seeking a third term.
“Do you want the status quo or do you want a group who wants to embrace economic revitalization? We will do the actions necessary to shepherd projects through the process,” he said. “We will be looking for ways to say yes, instead of saying no.”
Davies said he will bring to the council his skills as a vice president for business development at a Petaluma software company.
“I’m the only one running that has that kind of skill set, combined with actually working to employ people here in Petaluma,” he said. “I have a unique perspective in nurturing existing firms as well as bringing more firms to fill in our offices.”
Johnson, a retired telecom executive, also stresses his job experience: “Thirty years of being in a board room, from every level, almost from janitor to Fortune 500.”
“When I started this in February, I knew 100 people in town, and six months later, I have 10 big endorsements, including the police, fire, Sonoma County Alliance and people from every sector of the public,” he said. “That says I know how to get everyone’s needs met and work with them on a viable solution.”
This is the second time Kearney has sought a council seat, the first 10 years ago when he was 18. He said his experience on the Sonoma County Community Development Committee will help Petaluma recover economically.
He proposes using redevelopment funds for a marketing plan to attract new business. “I want to make sure as we grow, we don’t lose the feeling of what Petaluma is,” he said.
Nau is hoping voters understand what she’s been talking about for years: “better shopping opportunities.”
As a sixth-generation county resident, Nau said she learned under the tutelage of the late county supervisor and Petaluma Mayor Helen Putnam.
“This is my hometown. I didn’t just move here 10 years ago and get a job,” she said. “I have been an active member of the community. I am concerned about my community and its traditions, but I’m also for in-fill projects for economic growth, which is Target.”
Albertson said his record of “honesty, integrity, ability” and a “proven record of accomplishment” as a firefighter for 38 years sets him apart.
“I get things done. I want to take that into the council,” he said. “There’s stuff that needs to be done, and the current council procrastinates, hesitates, vacillates and doesn’t make decisions. We aren’t putting Petaluma to be in a good position for when the recovery comes.”