By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Just as the latest Petaluma City Council attempt to find a compromise candidate threatened to stalemate into partisan politics for a fourth time late Monday night, members of the pro-business contingent joined a progressive councilmember to appoint Gabe Kearney as their newest member.
Kearney, 29, is an active member of the Sonoma County Young Democrats and is a relatively liberal thinker who placed fifth in the November election in a race to fill three seats on the council.
The council has operated with six members since Jan. 3, when David Glass left his council seat vacant to become mayor. The council had tried unsuccessfully twice before to agree on a replacement appointee, stalling at 3-3 ties between the progressive and pro-business factions.
Monday, in two straw votes in which none of 19 candidates won backing from a majority of the six-member council, Kearney was the only candidate to draw support from across party lines. Even then, he only drew “expressions of support” from Councilman Mike Healy of the pro-business bloc and progressive Tiffany Renee.
But when faced with the possibility of operating until December 2012 – when Glass’ former term expires – with six members who disagree on major issues such as development, newly elected Councilman Chris Albertson had had enough.
On a third straw poll, Albertson also supported Kearney. Then in a formal vote, business-backed Councilman Mike Harris joined in, giving Kearney a 4-2 vote to become the council’s seventh member. Progressives Glass and Teresa Barrett voted no. (In a follow-up ballot, the council voted unanimously to appoint Kearney.)
Kearney’s ascension was somewhat surprising, since he had failed to garner a single vote in three previous straw polls in January. Glass, Barrett and Renee instead supported Jason Davies and former Petaluma mayor Pam Torliatt.
“Not making that decision was abhorrent to me,” Albertson said after the vote. “That was our job. We needed to have a seventh member. Mr. Kearney is a good man.”
Earlier, Glass, Barrett and Renee all said they wouldn’t change their initial votes. Harris, Healy and Albertson all narrowed their choices from the first to the second votes.
On the third informal ballot, Albertson threw in with Healy and Renee, giving Kearney three votes – again the only candidate with cross-over support.
After Healy made a motion for a formal vote, Harris, perhaps the most conservative member on the council, joined to give Kearney the appointment.
Glass said his choices, which included Torliatt and Davies, were the only candidates “the environmental community knows,” and would therefore be the only ones he would support.
As the seventh council member, Kearney could be a crucial swing vote on controversial proposals that reach the council, including 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.
Worries about Kearney’s values linger, but both Albertson and Healy said they believe Kearney can be open-minded.
“He’s not my first choice,” Albertson said, noting Kearney’s perceived left-leaning values. Four-three votes “have always been a concern. But would 3-3 votes be advantageous to Petaluma?”
Healy said Kearney was essentially “voted off the island” during the election by progressive Democratic leaders, who supported Davies.
“It was a maturing experience for Gabe,” he said. “I think he’s willing to listen to everybody.”
Kearney, an emergency services coordinator for Kaiser Permanente hospitals, will be sworn in on March 7.