By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A spirit of cooperation and compromise appears to have taken root on the Santa Rosa City Council as newcomers unscarred by ideological skirmishes of the past are working hard to forge pragmatic solutions to the city’s pressing issues.
Two recent policy debates underscore how the dynamic has shifted since three new members have taken seats on the council since the November election.
Julie Combs and Erin Carlstrom were both elected to the seven-member council in the fall, and Robin Swinth, a former Board of Public Utilities member, was appointed in January to replace now 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin.
All three have played central roles in recent debates over such complex issues as the funding level for the police department given the requirements of Measure O, and the proposed closure of the Community Media Center of the North Bay.
“There is not a love-fest going on,” notes David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University. “But they clearly are trying in the early stages to come together on some tough decisions.”
All three new council members showed particular determination to find a compromise during the Measure O debate earlier this month.
City Manager Kathy Millison asked the council to agree that in the coming months it would accept a 2013/2014 budget for the police department that would not dip more than $1.1 million below the so-called baseline established in Measure O, the 2004 quarter-cent public safety sales tax.
The baseline funding level for the department goes up by the consumer price index every year during the 20-year life of the special tax, but the city’s budget woes have forced it to keep the police budget below baseline for several years.
Millison said it was important for the council to agree to go below the baseline ahead of time to relieve city staff of the need to prepare two budgets. But Julie Combs and Gary Wysocky weren’t willing to commit to a specific figure until they better understood how the police department’s funding affected the needs of other city departments.
Combs said she viewed economic development as a top priority, and wanted to make sure there would be some money available to boost the city’s efforts in that area next year. Consequently, she explained she reserved the right to have a police budget that went more than $1.1 million below baseline.
It was long, complex, policy debate that proved frustrating at times for some council members.
At one point, Ernesto Olivares, a retired police lieutenant, said he didn’t like the way council members were setting aside Millison’s proposal and “pulling numbers out of a hat” in an effort to find a different funding level.
“I’m not supporting any of this,” Olivares said.
But others kept trying to craft a motion that could win full council support.
Carlstrom, the vice mayor, suggested an interim step where the city manager would return to the council after its upcoming report on council goals to further discuss the cost of various priorities. But when she sensed debate was no longer constructive, Carlstrom showed a willingness to call for a vote to clear the way for other solutions to be proposed.
“I am calling for the question,” Carlstrom said at one point. “I’m not hearing people move.”
That annoyed Wysocky, who disputed Carlstrom’s claim that she wasn’t trying to squelch debate.
“You’re not attempting to stop the discussion? You just did!” Wysocky said.
But by allowing the motion at the time to fail, it set the table for new ideas and new motions.
The first effort to agree to go below baseline without a specific dollar amount failed 5-2. Then Combs’ proposed going $500,000 deeper below the baseline, to $1.6 million. That idea fared slightly better, but still failed on a 4-3 vote.
But Swinth kept at it, taking Carlstrom’s idea of having the city manager return with more information later, and grafted it onto Combs’ desire to go further below the baseline.
“What you’re seeing here is seven council members trying to move something forward,” Swinth said. “It’s hard to come to agreement, but there is an intention to move it forward and I think we can all appreciate that.”
The result was the council agreed to allow the police department budget to go between $1.1 million and $1.6 million below baseline, with the agreement that Millison would return in April to more clearly discuss the costs of various community services. The motion passed 7-0.
A similar dynamic materialized on the debate about the future of the Community Media Center of the North Bay. Combs felt strongly the city should solicit proposals from groups willing to provide public media services.
But others, including Swinth, felt such a process was inherently a competitive one, and a more collaborative approach was needed to chart the future of public media in the city.
“I think negotiation is where we’re going to get the most leverage for our dollars,” Swinth said.
“I guess I disagree,” Combs said.
But ultimately, after a lengthy discussion about the relative merits of both processes, the council agreed to a six-month contract extension during which the city would convene a community-wide effort to find a new collaborative model for the center.
In both cases, council members didn’t get wedded to their initial positions on issues, and shifted in an effort at finding compromise.
“There was no ego in any of those discussions,” Bartley said. “It was all ‘This is an issue and how are we going to solve it?’”
He noted that “rhetoric has been toned down” on the current council and the quality of the discussions has improved. He agreed that the new council members are a major reason for the change.
“We’ve had some pretty dynamic discussions,” said Mayor Scott Bartley. “I think the three new faces up there help.”
There might be other reasons, too. Where Bartley has assigned council members sit and the fact that discussion now takes place only after someone has made a motion, not before, might also be factors, he said.
Another reason may be that there is no longer a clear and entrenched ideological divide on the council between the faction supported by business and development interests and those backed by environmental and neighborhood groups.
“Before what the divide offered was a clarity of positions, and you don’t have that clarity this time,” McCuan said. “You have a lot of gray and nuance.”
So instead of lobbing verbal grenades at one another, council members are trying harder to find common ground, he said. The somewhat improved budget and distance from the 2014 elections may also be behind the truce, which he doubted will last.
“As people decide what their political futures hold, that’s where we’ll start to seem more fissures or cracks in the veneer of cordiality,” McCuan said.
Bartley said he’s not sure exactly why the dynamic has changed, but knows the approaches taken by the new members are clearly a big part of the equation.
“We want to get stuff done. We all do. And I think the new faces especially want to see success,” he said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @citybeater)