By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Rohnert Park Mayor Pam Stafford heads into Nov. 2 seeking re-election with both the boost and drag of a long record for voters to assess and judge.
A review of her votes and statements since 2006 displays a willingness to make some unpopular cuts and take some minority stands. She has balked at budget savings proposals that would have closed some community institutions, and has voted in ways that favor big business and big development.
As mayor since November, Stafford has had the final vote on some key council decisions. She has used it to clinch approvals of a proposed Wal-Mart expansion and a Codding Enterprises’ mixed-use development.
A councilwoman since 2006, she has voted to require permits for people who want to drink alcohol in city parks and opposed hiring an auditor to review the city’s finances.
She was on the winning end of a 2007 council vote to negotiate with employee groups over health benefits. The negotiations changed the city’s benefits plan so employees and retirees pay more toward their insurance, saving the city an estimated $30 million over time.
And in a a series of decisions since June 2009, she has voted with the majority to eliminate 36 city worker positions.
Her four-year record, and her mayoral term, have earned her both fans and critics.
“She attempts to come to consensus decisions, and I’ve witnessed this on a number of occasions,” said Brian Sobel, a Petaluma-based political consultant who has worked for candidates who opposed Stafford in the past but isn’t involved in this election.
Critics such as Roger Schwanke, a retired city police officer who is running for one of the two open seats, say that she’s not up to the job, particularly in trying fiscal times.
“She’s a nice lady, but I don’t think she understands the whole concept of what the needs of the city are,” he said.
Stafford’s final key vote before election season began in earnest was to approve — along with council members Jake Mackenzie and Gina Belforte — Sonoma Mountain Village, a $1 billion Codding Enterprises project on the city’s south edge.
She called the development “one of the more responsible examples of growth anywhere.”
That vote has followed her into the campaign like a cat after a bird, with an independent committee spending heavily to hammer her for it. “Mayor Pam Stafford sells out to Codding,” states one of the committee’s more strongly worded mailers.
Other criticisms have focused on her willingness to hire consultants and her vote to hire an interim city manager at a salary of $16,000 a month.
Stafford, owner of a fitness business, first ran for council to replace Councilwoman Amie Breeze in a 2004 recall election fueled by residents angry over support form Breeze and then-Councilman Armando Flores for the Graton Rancheria casino project.
She entered that campaign because she opposed the casino. Though unsuccessful, her run revealed a willingness to overturn former alliances; she previously had managed two council campaigns for Flores, whom she ultimately unseated in 2006.
In 2008 she voted to accept a low bid by an out-of-town company for a contract to clean the city’s parks — opposing a higher bid from a local program that employs developmentally disabled people. Later, on another vote, she approved the higher bid.
In 2009, she was the sole vote against hiring an outside auditor for $28,500 to review the city’s finances, arguing that staff and the council should tackle the job themselves. “I feel like we were elected to deal with these problems,” she said at the time.
She later voted to hire a consultant for $15,000 to conduct a $24,5000 survey assessing voter support for a sales tax measure; the half-cent city sales tax measure won at the ballot box and is projected to bring the city upward of $2.4 million a year.
This year, she also supported hiring an interim city manager for $16,000 a month — a move opposed by council members Joe Callinan and Breeze. She now favors hiring an assistant city manager to concentrate on economic development.
“It’s a really important position, the amount we’d pay him you get back ten-fold,” she said.
Since June 2009, as the city wrestled with a deficit that hit $6 million, she has voted for budget cutting moves that have led to savings of $2.7 million, including turning the Spreckels Performing Arts Center into a rental-only facility and eliminating seven public safety officer positions.
She also voted to shut two neighborhood swimming pools and to close the public parks’ bathrooms and install portable toilets in the parks instead.
In a city founded on the notion of widely accessible suburban amenities, the decisions on the pools and parks bred considerable criticism citywide.
Stafford said they were fiscally correct moves and also practical decisions.
“There were times when we had more lifeguards in the pools than kids,” she said. “We also now have functioning bathrooms. Before they were inoperable because they were always being vandalized.”
At the same time, she balked when further cuts were proposed that would have closed the senior and community centers. And she resisted further cuts to the city’s engineering departments and planning that were proposed in March, saying those jobs were needed to continue a focus on the city’s economic development.