By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The political chasm separating Susan Gorin and John Sawyer, who are campaigning to become the next member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors from the 1st District, runs wide and deep.
The two Santa Rosa council members have been skirmishing for years over municipal issues and now are taking their disparate views on the role of local government to the voters of a district that extends from the east side of Santa Rosa through Sonoma Valley to San Pablo Bay. The election is Nov. 6.
Though their differences are well established, Gorin, 60, and Sawyer, 57, agree on some key issues, including support for county spending on initiatives to spur job creation and recruit and retain local businesses.
Both say they support the county’s move to become a residential and commercial power supplier, though they have concerns about customer rates.
Both candidates also have recommended boosted spending to repair county roads.
Sawyer has proposed a short-term countywide sales tax measure to address the current repair backlog, estimated at $100 million annually.
Gorin has said that a tax measure may be needed but hasn’t backed any concept. She gave Sawyer’s plan little chance for success at the ballot box, noting that it would rely largely on city-fueled tax receipts to pay for county roads. Such a funding mechanism could be a long-shot with city leaders, she said.
Sawyer said his plan would offer benefits for transit, bicycle and pedestrian and park infrastructure.
“I believe people have shown their willingness to step up to the plate when there’s a greater good at stake,” he said.
Both Sawyer and Gorin say they would look for funding within the county budget before advancing a tax proposal.
Gorin has said those funds may have to be found through cuts to other services. Which those would be, she doesn’t yet know.
“I’m saying let’s make road maintenance a priority. I’m saying let’s make fiscal choices,” she said.
Sawyer, instead, has suggested that money could be found in what he called “hidden funds” in the county’s $1.3 billion budget. Such sources, if they exist, could be tapped without diminishing current services, he said.
“I think everyone can find efficiencies,” he said.
A series of county audits are underway to determine if any such surplus funds exist.
The Springs project
Gorin said her top priority for the 1st District would be seeking a way to continue with the Highway 12 street and sidewalk upgrades in an area north of Sonoma known as The Springs.
The county’s attempt to retain $9.5 million in redevelopment funds to complete the project has been rejected three times by state finance officials since Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved 400 local redevelopment agencies on Feb. 1 to use the money to close the state budget gap.
Gorin said she would look to continue the Highway 12 project with grant funds and existing county money, without saying what sources she would tap.
Sawyer also supports completion of the project, but said certain elements might have to be dropped, without offering specifics.
Pay and benefits
Gorin has pledged to take what she called a “significant pay cut” and forgo a county pension. Supervisors are paid an annual salary of $134,000 and receive about $66,000 in benefits.
Sawyer suggested he would accept a pay cut but dismissed Gorin’s pledge to give up her pension as a gimmick, noting she could rely on retirement benefits earned by her husband, an engineer at Agilent.
Both candidates would have to be elected to a second term before they could reach the five-year minimum to become vested in the county retirement system.
The two backed the county’s efforts to reign in skyrocketing pension costs, while suggesting they would offer different direction if elected.
Currently, the county is pressing for an across-the-board 3 percent cut in pay and benefits, resulting in a first-year savings of about $13 million, and more thereafter. The measures primarily would target future hires, but also would affect current workers.
In that mix, Gorin said the county’s highest-paid workers should take bigger concessions.
Sawyer, meanwhile, said the deeper cuts should not affect current workers who are within 10 years of retirement.
Both agreed with county fiscal watchdogs, who have argued that more will need to be done to control county pension costs.
Campaign contributions by labor groups do not change that fact, they said.
Gorin has taken money from Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the county’s largest labor group, representing mostly lower-paid line staff.
“I can maintain a great working relationship with our employee partners and yet still be convincing about the need for concessions,” she said.
Sawyer is supported by city and county unions representing law enforcement and firefighters.
“Our new paradigm is cost-cutting,” he said. “Our employees understand that and they expect it.”
With mail-in voting underway, and Election Day a little more than two weeks away, the campaigns are hitting their final sprint.
Two outside groups, including a local real estate alliance supporting Sawyer and an SEIU-backed campaign supporting Gorin, are wading in with their own money and mailers in the race.
Gorin was the top-getter in the primary, edging Sawyer by just under 200 votes. Sawyer, however, is well ahead of Gorin in the money race, raising nearly $117,000 more since January, for a total of $294,463, including a $16,300 loan.
The total includes maximum donations from gravel, construction and trucking interests.
Gorin last week doubted she would close the money gap. But she used it to level an attack on Sawyer.
“I don’t have whole industries coming out to support me,” she said. Gorin had significantly more individual donors in the latest period than Sawyer. Her maximum contributions included donations from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595 and Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West.
“I don’t make decisions just in the interests of big business groups and big ag groups. John’s record shows none of that,” Gorin said.
Sawyer called the accusations “bunk.”
“Finding compromise is an essential part of being elected,” he said.
“I believe having a moderate, balanced stand on land use and social issues is important,” he said. “Disrupting or compromising a good balance is, I think, to the
detriment of the county. I think I offer that balance.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)