By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The activist group Occupy Petaluma jumped into the political fray this election with a list of questions for City Council candidates, and some of the responses — and a question about surveillance drones — have sparked quite a discussion.
Occupy Petaluma, the 1-year-old organization that calls itself “a diverse group standing ground for the 99 percent,” posed nine queries to the six candidates seeking election on Nov. 6. The questions and replies are posted in a “virtual forum” on the group’s website.
Incumbents Tiffany Renée, Mike Healy and Gabe Kearney are seeking to retain their seats while Alicia Kae Herries, Jason Davies and Kathy Miller are challenging. With three seats on the seven-member council up for grabs, the results could install a solid majority in either direction or establish a moderate mix.
Candidate questionnaires often ask some of the same questions, like those about economic goals, budget priorities and views on development.
But Occupy folks asked an unusual pair: “Would you oppose the use of drones by the Petaluma Police Department?” and “Would you support an anti-drone ordinance for Petaluma?”
One candidate, Healy, answered with almost a giggle: “We would only need drones if the Taliban are spotted in Penngrove.”
He went on to write that there are several higher priorities for police funding than unmanned flying surveillance devices. Other candidates agreed, saying they oppose the use of drones and/or had privacy concerns.
Amy Hanks, a leader of Occupy Petaluma’s Democracy working group, acknowledged that the question was not taken seriously by every candidate.
“Some of the candidates actually were kind of dismissive,” she said. But she defended the unusual question.
“We don’t know” if it’s a realistic possibility in Petaluma, she said. “But there are enough privacy concerns that I think it’s reason to broach the question.”
(The federal government must approve the use of drones and it has for a few large police departments nationwide. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department recently asked for federal approval and funding to become the first California agency to use the devices, which can cost six figures and require extensive special training.)
Another question that sparked strong opinions was whether the candidates would “commit to respecting the will of the voters by appointing the next-highest vote getter(s)” from a recent election when mid-term vacancies occur.
That issue became divisive last year when Kearney was appointed to fill the remainder of David Glass’ term. The vacancy was created when Glass, then a mid-term councilman, was elected mayor in 2010.
Kearney had finished sixth and Davies fourth among nine candidates during the 2010 election. After lengthy discussion and several rounds of voting by councilmembers, Kearney won compromise support from the more progressive Renée and members of the pro-development bloc.
Only Davies and Herries said they’d approve of appointing the next-highest vote getter.
Renee said she’d prefer rank-choice voting, which would better indicate voters’ preferences. She also appeared to respond to those who have withdrawn their support for her, including Glass, because of her Kearney vote.
The “appointing council should not be held accountable for (the) voting record of the appointee councilmember,” she wrote. “This accountability should be placed on the electorate. Yet that undue standard of accountability seems to apply to some council members and not others in past appointments.”
Occupy also ran into the same problem others experience when trying to pin politicians down to firm answers, Hanks said.
“Some of the questions were answered adequately and others, they could have been much more specific and addressed the question much more directly,” she said.
Read the candidates’ responses at the Occupy Petaluma Virtual Forum at http://www.occupypetaluma.com/city-council-candidate-virtual-forum