BY BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When Sonoma County government offices reopen this week, many after a mandatory, seven-day closure over the holidays, there will be plenty of new faces occupying top job slots.
New county supervisors Mike McGuire and David Rabbitt, Sheriff Steve Freitas, District Attorney Jill Ravitch and County Counsel Bruce Goldstein all begin in their positions this week before a ceremonial swearing-in Jan 11 at the first Board of Supervisors meeting.
State officials associated with the county, including six new superior court judges and new county schools chief Steve Herrington, will also take office over the next two weeks.
The new county leaders are taking over from predecessors who tallied a combined 56 years at the helm of county government. They include supervisors Paul Kelley and Mike Kerns, Sheriff Bill Cogbill and County Counsel Steven Woodside, all of whom are retiring, and outgoing District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua.
Together with the earlier retirements of two veteran supervisors, Tim Smith and Mike Reilly, it brings a new era in county government.
“I think we can honestly say that an era has passed,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said. In 2009, the now-29-year-old Carrillo replaced Reilly, who retired after 12 years as the west county supervisor. The same year, Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, took over for Smith, who held the office for 20 years.
”It’s definitely a changing of the guard, without a doubt,” said Zane, 51. She said the shift mirrors changes in county population and demographics.
County government now has its first female district attorney in Ravitch, its first female county administrator in Veronica Ferguson, who started last February, and, in Carrillo, its first elected Latino representative.
“It’s a healthy reflection of a democracy,” Zane said.
Yet given the county’s fiscal challenges, the inaugural toasts coming from county headquarters on Administration Drive next week might be accompanied by a collective gulp.
The county’s projected general fund budget deficit for next fiscal year, estimated at $27 million just months ago, now is about $36 million without the use of special reserve funds.
Plunging property tax revenue and rising employee costs could grow that gap before July, when the next fiscal year begins. Already, in the past two fiscal years, deficits of roughly $62 million and $22 million, respectively, resulted in the elimination of nearly 300 filled and unfilled jobs and about 95 layoffs.
Another round of deep job cuts and layoffs is likely, officials said. Supervisors are set to begin those discussions in their third meeting of the year, on Jan. 25.
“We’re going to have to become leaner and meaner than we already are,” Zane said. “Some departments can do that. Others, not so much.”
The grim forecast could force the new supervisors, sheriff and district attorney to shelve some campaign promises and focus instead on defending existing services and programs they deem essential, political observers said.
Already, Ravitch, Freitas and Goldstein — who is not elected and serves at the pleasure of the board — said they are looking at key jobs they may not be able to fill or programs they may have to cut.
Disagreement among leaders over those decisions could produce gridlock, some say.
“It isn’t clear with this many new folks what they truly believe in setting priorities on what to cut,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political science professor. “Because this is what we’re talking about — what there is to cut. It’s not just fiscal austerity. It’s much worse.”
McCuan also doubted that the new leaders would have the same ability and influence as outgoing and former county officials to fend off local impacts from the state’s budget crisis.
Past, current and incoming supervisors dismissed that claim in separate interviews last week.
“That’s absolute malarkey,” said McGuire, the new north county supervisor.
Leadership posts in county government associations at the state and national level, lobbying and work experience at the state capitol and years of combined service in local government will all keep the county at the forefront of state politics, supervisors said.
“We’re going to fight like hell for the residents of Sonoma County,” McGuire, 31, said.
Some former and current officials also joined the new leaders in saying the daunting budget challenges facing the county could result in better cooperation among the new leadership.
“The fiscal mess the county is in is going to determine what this board (of supervisors) is going to do more than the personality of its members,” said Reilly, the former west county supervisor.
“It’s the reality of pretty much every level of government right now,” said Rabbitt, 50, the new south county supervisor. Hopefully, he said, the board will be “coming together” to “make decisions that put this county on good financial footing for years to come.”
Almost no one among the new and current leaders, however, sees a halt to the county job and service cuts or a rebound in government revenues within the next year.
“It’s going to be rough for at least the next two years,” said Supervisor Valerie Brown, 65, the new board’s lone two-term veteran and a former state assemblywoman. She said the county will be going into “full-bore defense mode” to fend off any revenue takeaways from the state or additional transfer of state services to the county.
“I don’t think there’s going to be much to hang our hats on, except for keeping people safe and off the streets,” she said.
To avoid more year-over-year cuts, county officials have been looking at consolidating departments and narrowing the government’s focus to core public safety, infrastructure and social service programs.
Partnerships with cities, nonprofit groups and the private sector are also now seen by most county leaders as a vital way to stretch public dollars.
Under fire from labor groups, supervisors have resorted increasingly to those outside contracts, especially for health services such as drug- and alcohol-abuse counseling.
But such moves may be preferable to maintaining county-only programs with bare-bones budgets, officials said.
“I hate to cut, cut, cut and think that we’re providing something that we’re really not,” said Rabbitt, likely the most conservative voice on the new board of supervisors.
A majority of that new board, including Rabbitt, Carrillo and Zane, also have been vocal about the need to rein in the cost of employee retirement benefits.
Taxpayer contributions to the county’s pension system, nearly $50 million now, are set to rise by millions over the next six years to replace large stock market losses in 2008 and cover past salary and pension increases along with other benefit changes.
Taxpayer advocates have cheered administration plans to tackle the pension issue, though some experts have said a proposal to reduce benefits for new workers would not go far enough to solve the county’s problems.
“This has been kicked down the road” by previous boards of supervisors, said Jack Atkin, president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. “If (the new board) did nothing this year but work on and solve this problem, it would be a successful year.”
Labor representatives have acknowledged some need for pension reform. But they remain critical of past decisions on employee compensation, including a rollback in medical coverage and salary increases for managers. They hope the new board will be more open to that input.
“If we seriously looked at the overall picture, there are some very expensive strategies the county chose to use that need to be adjusted,” said Bill Robotka of the Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20 IFPTE, which represents about 200 county workers.
Also at the top of the county agenda will be the hiring of permanent managers for the county water agency and departments overseeing personnel and information technology. Those decisions could come at the end of this month.
Several land use issues also are looming. A draft environmental review of plans to expand the runway at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport is due out this spring. Later this year, the county Planning Commission is expected to take up Preservation Ranch, the proposed 1,800-acre forest-to-vineyard conversion project with 60 potential home sites on nearly 20,000 acres outside of Annapolis.
That proposal and other land-use matters are likely to refuel the county’s perennial battle between environmental and business interests.
Depending on the issue, a majority of supervisors could vote in favor of development or environmental protection, board watchers said. McGuire and Brown represent the likeliest swing votes.
Still, building industry leaders like their chances. The recent approvals of the Dutra asphalt plant and Roblar Road rock quarry, and election day wins for business-backed candidates including McGuire and Rabbitt, should set the stage for a more streamlined and straightforward development-review process, industry leaders said.
“We’d like that in a good economy. We demand it in a bad one,” said Keith Woods, chief executive of the North Coast Builders Exchange in Santa Rosa.
But environmental leaders, some of whom have promised court challenges of the asphalt plant and rock quarry, said they remain hopeful the new county leadership will uphold green ideals, including city-centered growth, sustainable transportation and open space protection.
Any step away from those goals will only be temporary, they said.
“This (leadership change) is nothing new,” said John Crevelli, 79, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College history professor and leading figure in the decades-long fight to protect the county’s coast.
“The pendulum swings back and forth. Today, given the economy, it’s time for it to swing (toward business interests.) But it will only be a matter time until it swings back. It might be sooner than some people think.”
McGuire focused on spending cuts and jobs
Mike McGuire started his 10-year run in public office as A 19-year-old school board member. After four years on the Healdsburg School Board, he served six years on the Healdsburg City Council, including a year as mayor, before his election in June to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
Since then, it’s been clear McGuire still believes in homework.
The new north county supervisor has hosted a series of town hall meetings, met with dozens of county and city leaders and been a frequent attendee at board of supervisors meetings.
His chief focus has been getting up to speed with the county’s budget challenges.
“I think it’s obvious to everybody,” he said, “it’s going to be a year of sacrifice.”
But while acknowledging the need for government spending cuts, the 31-year-old, who takes over for retiring four-term supervisor Paul Kelley, is equally emphatic about the need for new investment in the local economy.
The county should play a larger role in promoting job training opportunities, expanding the reach of green building — especially through the county’s energy retrofit program — and improving Internet access for rural areas, he said.
Federal dollars can help with some of those efforts, he said. County redevelopment funds should also be used to further market existing businesses and lure new ones, investments that pay off in higher tax revenues, he said.
“Everything we do,” he said, “is going to have to be thinking about how we create jobs and turn our economy around.”
Rabbitt wants to build partnerships
After a heated race for the south county supervisorial seat, David Rabbitt, an architect who recently served four years on the Petaluma City Council, says he’ll be taking his new office this week with an eye on building regional partnerships.
That means more collaboration between Sonoma County and neighboring counties, as well as with local cities, he said.
“Every county department and every city need to make sure that if there are opportunities to save money, they are explored,” said Rabbitt, 50.
He also envisions more joint ventures with local businesses and nonprofit organizations.
County government needs to make sure incentives, not excessive red tape, exist to lure private sector investment to the county, he said.
“You don’t give away the store, but you also realize that it takes a certain amount of give-and-take to attract businesses here,” he said.
For nonprofits, he hopes to lead an effort that would ensure local groups are not tripping over each other to compete for the same shrinking pool of county funding.
Nonprofit leaders have complained about the issue and expressed support for such an effort.
“Every one of them does great work,” said Rabbitt, about the various groups that provide health and social services in the area. “I think we can help them with their core mission.”
Not all county-driven partnerships will be welcomed, however.
Fellow supervisors are sure to recruit Rabbitt in an attempt to bring Petaluma into the county’s waste disposal system.
The city is the lone holdout, sending its waste to nearby Redwood Landfill in Marin County.
City officials claim the arrangement is cheaper for ratepayers than sending waste to the county’s central landfill.
“I’ll be in a unique position there,” Rabbitt said.
Sheriff’s dept. to focus on the most vulnerable
Sonoma County Sheriff-elect Steve Freitas takes office this week at a department facing what could be its largest budget cut in recent history.
A proposed 25 percent spending reduction, equating to roughly a $20 million loss for the sheriff’s office, could result in heavier job cuts and service reductions than in the past two years, when the office lost 70 filled and unfilled slots.
The cuts will require tough decisions about how best to protect the 1,600 square miles and nearly 500,000 residents served by the office, Freitas said. Serving the most vulnerable people, particularly the elderly, the disabled and the young will be a priority, he said.
“Because of our budget deficit there will be some forced changes. I must focus on those first,” Freitas, 47, said. “Some of it will be painful, but I guarantee that there will be some good things that come out of it.”
Despite cuts, Freitas said one of his top priorities will be to create a cultural shift, both within the organization and in the way his staff interacts with the public.
“We got into a bunker mentality, an ‘Us versus them,’” Freitas said of the office’s culture. “I want to change that and it starts with me.”
A customer service oriented office means fewer bureaucratic hoops and impersonal forms, more returned phone calls, he said.
It also means finding ways to maximize the time deputies spend out in the field and making contact with people, Freitas said.
“The shift among law enforcement right now is that if you have a minor crime, you send a form,” Freitas said. “I hope we don’t get there. You never know what you’ll learn when you talk to someone.”
Freitas joins a cohort of new leadership within the sheriff’s office as well as across the county.
Seven of the 13 area law enforcement agencies will have new leaders by January, including Cotati, Healdsburg, Windsor, Petaluma and the CHP.
Freitas, who serves as president of the Sonoma County Law Enforcement Chief’s Association, said the leaders will be discussing more ways to share resources, such as dispatch centers.
“The seven worst words in the English language are: ‘Because we’ve always done it that way,’” Freitas said.
— Julie Johnson
New DA Ravitch ready to take charge
Being the top law enforcement officer in Sonoma County is something career prosecutor Jill Ravitch has wanted for a long time.
But with the challenges facing the incoming district attorney, some might say be careful what you wish for.
When Ravitch, 52, of Sebastopol, takes over Monday at noon, she will be faced almost immediately with the task of cutting expenses as much as 25 percent, possibly through staff layoffs that will most certainly affect her ability to handle cases.
By the second week of January she’ll be expected to come to the table with County Administrator Veronica Ferguson and suggest ways to help correct an expected multimillion dollar countywide deficit.
Asked recently about her plan, Ravitch wasn’t specific. But she said there may be hard times ahead.
“Nothing is set in stone,” Ravitch said. “We are going to be confronted with incredible challenges in the new year.”
Otherwise, as she has repeated since winning election in June after her second attempt over Stephan Passalacqua, she’ll analyze the functions of the department in the first 30 days before making changes.
A re-jiggering of the office is expected some time in February.
A few plans:
– Ravitch said all 45 attorneys in her office will handle cases, including managers. “Leadership begins at the top,” she said. “I don’t want to ask an attorney to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.”
– She will dismantle the specialized homicide unit and spread those cases throughout the office.
– She said a priority is getting to know everyone in the office and in other branches of the criminal justice system.
– Another priority is to be sure cases are handled “consistently and effectively.”
Any wiggle room in the district attorney’s budget was eliminated in a spate of last-minute hiring by Passalacqua. At least five new attorneys remain on a year-long probation and could bear the brunt of cuts.
The office’s fiscal 2010 budget was about $22 million with a payroll of about 125 employees.
— Paul Payne
County schools chief wants to be a problem solver
Steve Herrington will step into the role of superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education in an era of deep cuts to schools across the county and up and down the state.
The financial crisis facing schools is reflected in Herrington’s top three goals for 2011.
– Service to districts: “Districts are becoming more in need as they get smaller and shrink and we need to look at how we can help them out at the county level,” Herrington said.
– Working on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind: The NCLB moniker is slowly being discarded as educators reclaim its former incarnation, “Elementary and Secondary Education Act.” Herrington said the county office is a conduit for getting districts up to speed on changing requirements stemming from a national push to create a common set of benchmarks among states.
“We want to be ready for that when it comes out,” he said.
The results are crucial — the new curriculum is the basis upon which testing, and penalties, are levied.
– Help districts solve their problems: The deep budget cuts are forcing districts to abandon programs or seek other ways of providing services. Herrington hopes to help districts partner for services or tap the county educaiton office resources for cooperative programs.
“They are going to have to look at their size, capacity issues, service models,” he said.
The latest round of cuts expected in Gov. Jerry Brown’s upcoming budget proposal could push a number of Sonoma County’s districts to “the brink,” Herrington said.
— Kerry Benefield