By PHILIP RILEY
Pam Torliatt oversaw her last council meeting as mayor last week, and when she steps down tonight she will leave a legacy that many are still struggling to define — and may still be evolving.
“Whether you agreed with Pam Torliatt or didn’t, you know that she worked very hard,” said Brian Sobel, a Petaluma political analyst. “Somebody who watched her local career would be impressed by her boosterism.”
After her loss to David Rabbit in the 2nd District Supervisor election, Torliatt, 43, will be out of office for the first time in 14 years. But she does not plan to stay in the shadows for long. Soon after the election, she told supporters that “this is the middle of the road, not the end,” in her political career.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said in a recent interview.
Torliatt’s political beliefs fall on the progressive side, favoring oversight of growth and development that hold builders fully accountable. These strong beliefs fostered a reliable base of support among progressive voters and others, leading to 18 years of service in local government — as mayor since 2006, on the council since 1996, and as a planning commissioner before that.
Her strongly held beliefs also led to opposition from those who disagreed with her. Critics accused her of failing to build consensus and have complained in the past of decisions that they felt were being forced by a four-member majority that voted in lock-step. They point to the re-alignment of the Planning Commission, when the majority of Council members were accused of “cronyism” after they voted to appoint like-minded new planning commissioners. They also highlight the strong opposition to her supervisor bid from a majority of city employees, who said she did not do enough to ensure revenue for the city.
However, those decisions “go hand in hand with her view of how you manage growth,” said Sobel. “She took a deliberative approach to land use. She is not a proponent of growth for growth’s sake.”
Torliatt said that despite political divisions that have garnered plenty of attention, her biggest accomplishments have been more utilitarian. She counted her proudest accomplishments as finding funding for the East Washington Street interchange, opening the Ellis Creek sewer plant, and adopting the city’s new economic development plan.
“I hope my legacy is one that inspired youth and community members to get involved and know that their government cares about them,” Torliatt said in an e-mail interview, adding that much of her work was done behind the scenes, networking and promoting the city throughout the region.
Sobel said that Torliatt is known and recognized for her “competence” and “enthusiasm,” but for may politicians, “the things that you are really proud of may not be what people see you as.”
Sobel said that Torliatt’s time on the council will likely be remembered for land-use stances and political beliefs.
Torliatt said that the biggest disappointments of her term were the Dutra asphalt plant going forward — whose approval she said is on “extremely shaky (legal) ground” — and the local media.
“Unfortunately, the Argus-Courier has not been willing to work together to create a positive atmosphere and economic development,” she said. “The constant criticism, unnecessary, untrue and distorted cartoons hurt the community. Of all times, this was the time to focus on the positives.”
Torliatt defended the council’s actions in her term, saying early cuts prevented further fiscal disaster. She said that the media “unfairly characterized that it’s pro-business or anti-business.” A more important distinction is “pro-business versus pro-developer,” she said, and reaffirmed her belief that a developer must prove how they can benefit the community.
“It’s not only in Petaluma that we are facing controversy,” she said, pointing out that economic difficulties “brought a lot of emotion” to politics.
Torliatt also took issue with The Press Democrat’s coverage of the sanctuary issue in her bid for Supervisor, saying “tactics and misrepresentations” by reporters and editorial writers distorted the issue. She declined to elaborate in a recent interview.
While her supporters have said that the coverage contributed to her loss, others say there are other factors.
“Any time a politician blames the media … people count that as a demerit,” said Sobel, who added that this may be true whether the blame is deserved or not.
But Sobel thinks that there are other reasons for her defeat.
“I don’t think she was able to expand her base beyond Petaluma,” said Sobel, who added that her campaign was cautious toward reaching out to undecided voters and failed to pick up voters who went with Mike Healy or John King in the primary.
Torliatt declined to comment on the recent election.
Torliatt, who also ran an unsuccessful bid for State Assembly against Jared Huffman in the 2006 Democratic primary, has not said where she expects her political career to go, but said she is considering applying for the council seat that David Glass will vacate when he becomes mayor.
Sobel said that if she runs for higher office, which is expected “based partly on how young she was when she got into politics,” she will have to focus on “redefining herself.”
“She will have to focus on two, three, four issues and own them so that people know who she is,” said Sobel, who added that Torliatt “has a reputation for being cautious” of concern for being open to everyone.
“Any time that you have lost a couple of elections, you need to drop back a few yards and analyze,” said Sobel.
For now, Torliatt said she hopes to enjoy the holidays before making a decision on her future. But she emphasized that she will continue her public service in some vein.
“If chosen or elected, I would be pleased to continue to serve our community,” she said.