By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Incoming Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin is managing the long days of her transition to higher office with a checklist that only seems to grow.
The former Santa Rosa city councilwoman, 60, is trying to come up to speed on county issues that include a controversial funding shortfall for road upkeep, stalled proposals for employee pay and pension cuts and looming land-use disputes.
In taking over representation of the county’s 1st District from Supervisor Valerie Brown, she has about five dozen appointments to make to county boards and commissions.
One of her first selections — her choice of Cotati Councilwoman Pat Gilardi as her district director, the equivalent of a full-time legislative aide for county supervisors — is bound to cause ripples in local government and political circles.
Gilardi, a former Cotati planning commissioner, has served on the city council since 2000 and was set to begin her third rotation as mayor this year. To accept Gorin’s offer — which she has yet to formally do — she would step down from the city council and her board post on the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, sources said.
Gorin said she chose Gilardi for her political experience, understanding of the news media — she is a sales manager at the Marin Independent Journal — and ability to work with the public.
“The position requires a good dose of not only exceptional skills and discretion but thoughtfulness,” Gorin said.
Gilardi declined to comment Friday on the job offer.
For Gorin, there also is the small question of where to sit. Brown, who retired Dec. 31 and who bought the chairs for her office, took them with her when she left. So Gorin said she added ‘find furniture’ to her checklist this week.
“It’s sort of helter-skelter bringing things in,” she said Friday in a phone interview from her office, where she was seated in a chair scrounged from a nearby cubicle. Paperwork was already piled high on her desk, she said, and a “zillion” messages were waiting in her new county email account.
“I have some catching up to do,” she said.
Two months ago, Gorin won a hard-fought race against fellow Santa Rosa council member John Sawyer to succeed Brown, who has represented the 1st District since 2002. The district includes Sonoma, Sonoma Valley and eastern Santa Rosa.
Gorin was officially sworn into office Wednesday by Bill Rousseau, the county clerk-recorder-assessor. Her ceremonial oath Tuesday will be administered by state Sen. Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa Democrat and close political ally.
She joins a Board of Supervisors that has been reconstituted in the past four years. With Brown’s departure, the longest serving supervisors are now Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo, who will begin their second terms this week.
Political observers said the turnover, which includes relatively new faces in the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices and the county administrator’s post, could be both a liability and an opportunity for the new board.
“Big decisions still have to be made, and it’s in the midst of forming new relationships and figuring out how you make decisions as a board. That is a challenge,” said former Sonoma County supervisor Paul Kelley, who served 16 years on the board and stepped down at the end of 2010.
Previous county boards have rotated in new members over a longer span of time, Kelley said. The transition for Gorin, who also joins Mike McGuire and David Rabbitt — both still in their first term — will be more abrupt.
For the current board, “there’s not a lot of institutional knowledge,” Kelley said. “On the positive side, there’s an opportunity for the new leaders to try some new things.”
Gorin said her immediate priorities include taking up Brown’s bid to find money to continue with street and sidewalk improvements on Highway 12 north of Sonoma. The project has been in limbo since the state-ordered shutdown of redevelopment agencies in February last year.
Gorin said she has spent the past month meeting with county department heads to become more familiar with the range of services provided by the county, which has an annual budget of $1.2 billion, or about four times the budget of Santa Rosa.
Tours of county facilities and meetings with interest groups in her district and throughout the county will occupy much of her time for the next few months, Gorin said. She said she plans to hold office hours in Sonoma or Boyes Hot Springs “a couple of days a month.”
Gorin said she has been briefed on one of the hottest items on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda: negotiations with employee bargaining groups over pay and pension cuts.
Last month, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the county’s largest labor group, overwhelmingly rejected a contract with pay and pension concessions.
Gorin was backed by that union in her campaign. She said she would be looking to understand its position while hearing from board colleagues and administrators on the county’s stance.
“I need to listen and learn,” she said.
With a number of controversial proposals coming before supervisors in the the next several months, Gorin’s honeymoon is likely to be “sweet and short,” said David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University.
Gov. Jerry Brown is set to release his budget Thursday, and McCuan said the spending package would propose an additional shift of state services to counties.
Previous shifts have been plagued by chronic underfunding, and counties have had their discretionary money shrink as a result.
“That affects other priorities and services downstream,” McCuan said. “It’s largely out of the control of supervisors and counties.”
Land use decisions, on the other hand, are some of the most locally governed and closely watched county business. Gorin, who was backed by environmental groups, is expected to usher in a new board alignment, formed by Zane and joined at times by McGuire, that favors tighter oversight of development and broader support for open space conservation and county energy initiatives.
Winery and vineyard development, a hot topic for Gorin’s supporters, could prove the new supervisor’s biggest environmental test. Others looming land-use and natural resource issues include:
• A fire safety proposal by PG&E to clear thousands of trees under 39 miles of power lines in Sonoma County.
• A proposed 30-year agreement to extend operation of county refuse services, including the central landfill and transfer stations, to a pair of private firms, Republic Services of Arizona and the Ratto Group of Companies, Sonoma County’s dominant garbage hauler.
• A county proposal to introduce fluoride to the drinking water of most county residents to improve dental health.
“We’re going to see very early what her orientation is,” and how that sits with the rest of the board, said McCuan, the Sonoma State professor. “Over the next few months, the number of 5-0 votes versus 4-1 or 3-2 votes will be an important barometer. We’ll start to see what the board is really made of.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or email@example.com.)