By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Following an election that shifted power back to candidates supported by local business interests, retired Santa Rosa police lieutenant Ernesto Olivares is poised to become the next mayor of Santa Rosa.
All signs point to the 53-year-old councilman being elected to the post by a majority of his fellow council members at the Dec. 7 council meeting, when new council members take office.
“It seems like Ernesto would be the natural choice,” said Scott Bartley, who was elected to the council on Nov. 2. “I certainly think that he would be more than capable in the position.”
Olivares, who was elected in 2008, as well as council members John Sawyer and Jane Bender have been in the minority on the council since the 2008 election gave progressives a majority for the first time.
Mayor Susan Gorin, Gary Wysocky, Marsha Vas Dupre and Veronica Jacobi have held a 4-3 majority for the past two years. But in a tough year for incumbents across the nation, Jacobi lost her reelection bid, and victories by Bartley and Ours shifted power back to business-backed candidates.
While any council member can be selected by the council to serve as mayor, the shift all but assures it will be one of the four in the new majority. Incumbents Sawyer and Olivares have the most experience, and Sawyer says he does not intend to seek the post.
It also means that Wysocky, who has served for two years as vice mayor and was expected to be well positioned to succeed Gorin if the environment and labor-backed bloc had retained power, has lost his change to wield the mayor’s gavel.
Sawyer served as mayor for six months in 2008 after the death of Bob Blanchard, and he said he won’t be seeking the post this time around.
“I know in my heart that Ernesto, given his experience both as a city employee and as a manager and his relationship with the organization and public safety and all of his experience with the community, that he would make an outstanding mayor and I would support him any way I could,” Sawyer said.
Olivares was characteristically concise when asked how he felt about the opportunity.
“If it happens, it’ll be a great honor,” Olivares said.
Olivares speaks far less than most of his colleagues on the council, and when he does his remarks are to the point. Supporters say his brevity is an asset that reflects his strong preparation for meetings and his desire to not waste staff time.
“His silence is fascinating to watch and I’ll try to emulate it, because when he does say something it’s considered,” Bartley said.
Mayor Susan Gorin said she’ll hasn’t spoken to Olivares about his interest in the post and will wait until she does before deciding whether to support him.
“He still is learning a lot about the operations of the city beyond his obvious strengths as a retired law enforcement officer and gang task force coordinator,” Gorin said. “He is still very, very quiet and succinct.”
Remarks by Wysocky suggested he’s not quite sure where Olivares stands on many issues.
“If Ernesto Olivares is elected mayor, I look forward to learning his positions on policies and projects,” Wysocky said. “I’m hopeful we’ll be working together on areas we agree on.”
One area where that’s unlikely to happen is the bicycle friendly improvements to Humboldt Street. Wysocky is a strong supporter of the so-called “bicycle boulevard” project, but Olivares made it clear he’s unlikely to support making the pilot project permanent.
He sees it as an example of the kind of “special interest” project that the city doesn’t have the luxury to undertake in its current fiscal crisis, he said.
“The public is frustrated over the money and energy that’s been put into that when everything else is kind of falling apart around us,” Olivares said.
The city’s priorities need to be creating jobs and continuing to tackle the city’s budget woes, he said.
Council members’ “pet projects” may have to take a back seat to issues befitting the fifth-largest city in the Bay Area, such as economic development, he said.
“We have to wear the big boy pants. That’s who we are,” he said.
If elected, Olivares said he would work hard to streamline meetings and keep discussions focused, which he said hasn’t been the current council’s strength. Many a time he’s thought to himself, “we’ve beat this one to death, we need to move on.”
“My role (would be) to move the meeting along and take care of the agenda. I’m not my job to sit up there and talk more than the other six,” he said.
He said he has a high opinion of city staff and will tend to trust them until they give him a reason not to. Effective leaders need to find ways to “keep your nose in and your fingers out,” he said.
While there was significant disagreement on the council over the recent hiring of Kathy Millison as the new city manager, Olivares said he doesn’t expect the new majority to move to replace her, as some warned could happen.
“She’s got the job and she deserves the right to do the job and have the flexibility to do the job without micromanaging,” he said.
Olivares said he will have the time to commit to the post because he was able to retire from the police department at age 51 with full benefits after a 30-year career. According to a state database, Olivares receives a pension of $128,000 per year.
He said he’s pleased voters passed Measure P, the quarter of a percent sales tax increase expected to raise about $6 million per year for city services. But he said the financial challenges facing the city remain significant and he thinks the council should be conservative about spending that additional revenue.
“I don’t want to be premature and start spending money we don’t have,” he said.