By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Gabe Kearney had just about given up being on the Petaluma City Council.
He finished fifth among nine candidates for three open seats in the November election, garnering only 12 percent of the citywide vote. Then, when a fourth seat opened up in January as David Glass left his council seat to become mayor, the progressive bloc supported other candidates.
In the first round of informal voting on Jan. 31 to determine who might be a suitable replacement, Kearney received not a single “expression of interest” from six council members.
Yet, late Monday night, the 29-year-old emergency preparedness coordinator for Kaiser Permanente and an active member of the Sonoma County Young Democrats became the compromise choice for the disputed seat.
The council needed to break a 3-3 impasse, separated by an ideological divide primarily over management of growth.
In the first straw poll, eight of the 19 applicants received three votes, one shy of the necessary 4-vote majority to win an appointment. Still, Kearney only received two votes.
What was significant was he was the only applicant to receive any crossover support — from Councilman Mike Healy of the pro-business bloc and progressive Tiffany Renee.
“With the first round it looked like it wasn’t going to happen at all,” Kearney said Tuesday between congratulatory messages.
Glass and Renee were prepared to leave the council with six members, which they said would force them to work together. Along with Teresa Barrett, also a proponent of strict regulations on development, they weren’t inclined to change their votes.
So, faced with the possibility of operating until December 2012 when Glass’ former term expires with a split council, newly elected Councilman Chris Albertson decided he’d had enough.
“Not making that decision was abhorrent to me,” Albertson said afterward. “That was our job. We needed to have a seventh member.”
Albertson threw in with Healy, and with Renee’s backing, Kearney polled three votes, again, the only applicant to draw crossover support.
Then in a formal vote late Monday, Councilman Mike Harris, the most conservative member on the council, joined in, giving Kearney a 4-2 vote to become the council’s seventh, potentially tie-breaking member.
Glass and Barrett voted no.
In a follow-up ballot, the council voted unanimously to appoint Kearney.
Glass said his choices, which included former Mayor Pam Torliatt and tech executive Jason Davies, were the only candidates he could support, although Glass did give Kearney the maximum contribution of $200 for the November election.
“There’s four people that the environmental community really has gotten to know,” he said. “There’s different values….That’s the values that we represent in this community.”
Kearney is viewed a liberal thinker, and was described as an environmentalist in his unsuccessful 2000 bid for the council, when he was 18 years old.
He is chairman of the Sonoma County Young Democrats and has been active in statewide Democratic politics. He also served as chairman of the Sonoma County Community Development Committee.
When he is sworn in Monday, he will become Petaluma’s first openly gay City Council member. He also will become the only east Petaluma council member.
He was born in San Francisco and moved to Petaluma at age four with his parents, James and Cynthia Kearney. He has a brother who is a Stockton firefighter and a sister who works at a law firm in Petaluma.
As the seventh council member, Kearney could be a crucial swing vote on controversial projects such as Deer Creek Village, a proposed 346,000-square-foot shopping center that is planned to include a Lowe’s home improvement center. The environmental impact report on that project could come before the council this summer.
Healy said Kearney was essentially shunned by progressive Democratic leaders in November, many of whom supported Davies. Davies ran on an unofficial slate with Glass, Barrett and Torliatt, who sought the county supervisor’s seat.
Both Albertson and Healy said they worry about Kearney’s political leanings, but said they believe he can be open-minded and objective.
On Tuesday, Kearney was noncommittal on Deer Creek, saying he needed to read the EIR before taking a stand. But he said the city does need to work to capture some of the millions of dollars its residents spend in other cities.
In his application for appointment, Kearney said he supports transit-oriented development. He said he supports the general plan zoning blueprint, but he would be comfortable issuing exceptions to projects whose impacts can be mitigated.
“I’m pretty confident that Gabe is strong enough to help us change the culture of the council,” Healy said. “I don’t expect him to vote with me 100 percent of the time or with the other side 100 percent of the time. If council members have to persuade each other, as opposed to what we’ve seen in the past, it will be better than before.”