Santa Rosa City Council rookie holds key vote Tuesday, when panel picks one of own for post
By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The official election results are in, but who’ll be the next mayor of Santa Rosa remains anyone’s guess.
Once new City Council members Erin Carlstrom and Julie Combs are sworn in Tuesday, the new council’s first order of business will be to select a mayor from their ranks.
It’s usually a predictable decision, with the gavel (and an extra $400 per month) passing to the most experienced member in the majority who has not yet held the post.
But this year all bets are off.
The election of attorney Erin Carlstrom has upended the city’s political apple cart, making the 29-year-old political newcomer the swing vote on the issue and leading to intense speculation about whom she’ll support.
Carlstrom says she’s taking the decision seriously and has been listening closely to a variety of viewpoints.
“I’ve just been in a mode of listening and trying to craft a decision — which I’ve not yet made — on how we can put together a productive council,” Carlstrom said late last week from Salt Lake City, where she is attending a conference of the Young Democrats of America.
Supporters who have spoken to Carlstrom since she returned from a post-election Mexican vacation say she’s not tipping her hand.
Stephen Gale, head of the Sonoma County Democratic Party, had lunch with Carlstrom and a handful of other supporters to congratulate her on her win and discuss the upcoming mayor decision, among other issues.
A number of scenarios for the mayor’s post were discussed during their lunch, including whether the gavel should pass to Gary Wysocky, Scott Bartley, Jake Ours or Julie Combs, Gale said.
Those four appear to be the only ones prepared to accept the post, Gale said.
That’s because the mayor can’t serve successive terms, which puts Ernesto Olivares out of the running. Susan Gorin is stepping down before her first meeting as a new member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, expected to be Jan. 11. And Carlstrom has indicated she’s not considering herself for the mayor’s job, Gale said.
Ours said he has “minimal” interest in the job and thinks Bartley “will make an excellent mayor.” Combs said she backs Wysocky for the position, calling him the progressive with the most experience on the council. “It’s his turn,” she said.
That would appear to make the choice a two-way contest between Wysocky and Bartley, who are on opposite sides of the ideologically divided council.
The four members who’ve been in the majority for the past two years tend to favor fewer regulations on businesses, while the three in the minority often give more weight to environmental and neighborhood concerns.
Carlstrom’s politics would appear to align more naturally with Wysocky’s. Both won the endorsements of groups emphasizing the importance of the environment, organized labor and neighborhoods.
But Carlstrom was also endorsed by Olivares and vice-versa, a move that created great consternation among her progressive supporters and left many to wonder where her true political allegiances lie.
And unlike Wysocky, Carlstrom won the backing of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Rosa firefighters’ union. Both backed Bartley two years ago.
All of which has left even political insiders scratching their heads over Tuesday’s vote.
“I’m talking to people and they have no idea,” said political consultant Terry Price. “It may truly and absolutely be decided that very night.”
Price worked on the campaigns of Combs and Gorin, both of whom have said they support Wysocky for the post.
Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, was one of those who attended the lunch meeting with Carlstrom. The group endorsed Carlstrom during her campaign, and Rosatti said he made it clear the group wants to see Wysocky become mayor.
“She listened and was very open, but she didn’t really indicate how she was going to vote or go,” Rosatti said.
Wysocky said he had “a very healthy exchange” with Carlstrom after Green Eggs and Ham, a post-election breakfast discussing sustainability issues. But he said he’s not sure if he has Carlstrom’s support.
“If I get the nod, it would be an honor. If I don’t, that’s those council members’ decisions,” Wysocky said.
Bartley said he hasn’t spoken to Carlstrom, has no idea how she’s leaning, and considers her to be “sharp and capable.”
Bartley served on the Planning Commission with Nick Caston, Carlstrom’s husband and current campaign consultant. The two clashed during the contentious debate over an environmental report on the Lowe’s Home Improvement store proposed for Santa Rosa Avenue, a report that was rejected.
Bartley was sharply critical of the decisions by Caston and Michael Allen not to abstain from the vote despite their leadership roles in a group that openly opposed the project, the Accountable Development Coalition. Bartley said their participation may have been legal but didn’t “pass the smell test.”
While he has pondered the upcoming vote, Bartley said he isn’t spending much time fretting over what he can’t control.
“It’s really Erin’s decision to make,” he said.
While she didn’t hint whom she’ll support for mayor, Carlstrom did say she hopes the new mayor continues the practice of allowing the vice mayor to be involved in the process of setting meeting agendas.
That power, along with the power to make appointments to local and regional boards and commissions, is one of the few the mayor’s office holds.
Carlstrom said she hoped the new mayor would take a “bipartisan” approach with regard to the selection of a vice mayor. She said she could envision a mayor from one side of the aisle and a vice mayor from the other. “I think that’s one scenario,” she said.
If the council cannot make a decision Tuesday, Olivares, who spent the weekend cleaning out his office in City Hall, will remain mayor until his replacement is named.
The council also could decide to postpone the decision until after a replacement for Gorin is selected, an equally politically charged process that’s expected to get under way in January.
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater)