By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In a development that may upturn Cotati’s election season, the son of the late California conservationist John Olmsted is jumping into the race as a write-in City Council
candidate, billing himself as a “fresh voice” who understands the needs of a small town.
“I hope to bring some middle ground to the council,” said Alden Olmsted, a photographer and filmmaker. “I think there’s a disconnect between the current City Council and the people of Cotati.”
The 41-year-old Sonoma native and seven-year Cotati resident will face a major hurdle because he’s not on the ballot and is launching his candidacy with barely a month to go.
“He has a huge disadvantage by being a write-in, especially this late, but he in theory will add a voice and if he chooses to walk and talk, he’ll take some votes from people,” political consultant Brian Sobel said.
Olmsted’s impact may stem from his having taken a position notably opposite three of his opponents: He supports Measure U, a voter initiative that would ban roundabouts or “any similar traffic feature” from the city forever.
Opposing the initiative are candidates for re-election Mayor Susan Harvey, 57, and Councilman John Del’Osso, 51, and first-time candidate Wendy Skillman, 46, an attorney and planning commissioner.
They say the initiative’s passage would hamper the city economically, would be counter to its general plan and would derail a $3.5 million downtown revitalization plan the council approved in December and which features two roundabouts.
Olmsted said he would prefer the initiative wasn’t “all or nothing,” but city attempts to install roundabouts on Old Redwood Highway have harmed the community.
“Why has the city been pushing for over seven years something that causes such divisiveness in such a small town,” he said.
A fifth candidate, George Barich, 54, who was ousted from the council in a 2009 recall vote after 10 months in office and then ran unsuccessfully to regain his seat, also supports Measure U, which has become the election’s main wedge issue.
Olmsted’s entry moves the race off its previous axis, which had resembled the city’s loudest political confrontation, with Barich squared off against the rest of the field and Measure U cleanly dividing the field.
While his candidacy appears to overlap with Barich’s, Olmsted said it is of a very different flavor.
“As far as I’ve heard, my position is nowhere near as polarizing,” he said. “From what I know, my position is much more middle ground, although I guess we do agree on the roundabout issue.”
Barich rails at his opponents, especially Del’Osso and Harvey, calling them “bought and sold” politicians with no new ideas.
“People are angry and frustrated with the status quo who have no business sense and real solutions,” he said in an email. “Some people are actually claiming they recalled the wrong person and intend to do something about it this election.”
His opponents say Barich’s aggressive, personally pointed style is something voters should take into account.
“Anyone can say whatever they want, that’s fine, but I think it’s kind of character-defining,” said Del’Osso, who was appointed in 2011 after the death of a Mayor Robert Coleman-Senghor.
Del’Osso and Harvey profess to ignore Barich’s jabs. And they and Skillman rebuffed his request to interview them in the monthly Cotati Independent newspaper that he publishes.
Del’Osso has focused his own campaign on “leveraging” existing city resources to find new funds to replace more than $2 million in redevelopment funds Cotati lost when the state dissolved redevelopment agencies this year.
He, Skillman and Harvey, who was elected to replace Barich when he was recalled, also have pinned their election efforts to fostering economic growth.
“We need to get more businesses to fill in some the empty storefronts,” said Skillman, whom Harvey appointed to the Planning Commission. She said the business permitting process should be further streamlined.
Barich said he will “advocate a business-friendly city” and cut regulations.
The city, which has balanced its budget for the past three years after six years of deficits, has made good fiscal progess that still needs to be improved upon through careful budgeting, Del’Osso, Harvey and Skillman say.
Barich calls city officials overpaid and the budget “dishonest” because it counts federal and state grant funds among revenue sources.
Shadowing the council campaign is Measure U, which arose out of a now-stalled plan that was to be paid for with redevelopment dollars to redesign Cotati’s downtown by narrowing the main, four-lane street to two lanes and installing the roundabouts.
Del’Osso called the plan “a legacy project.”
But foes mounted the effort to get the initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Barich has used his newspaper as a bullhorn to drum up support for the initiative, as well as to criticize the other candidates.
A city report ordered up by the council said that if passed, Measure U could cost the city $3.7 million in lost funding.
Harvey, who also voted for the plan, said it would spur business by creating a small-town downtown and would improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety.
She said Barich started running a negative campaign long before he filed his candidate papers.
“I think he’s been trying to set the tone of the race for over a year now — and quite frankly I have been getting quite a lot of feedback on his newspaper, or whatever you want to call it, his literature,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jeremyhay