By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Critics and supporters of Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo squared off Wednesday night in the first of three public meetings organized by his foes and focused mostly on whether the embattled west county supervisor should remain in office.
Most of those who spoke amid the crowd of about 40 people inside the Monte Rio Community Center were in favor of Carrillo stepping down or, if need be, his recall by voters. They said Carrillo had disgraced his elected office and lost their trust when he was arrested this summer in the early morning hours outside a Santa Rosa woman’s home.
“It’s very sad for me that we have someone like this as an elected leader,” Forestville resident Lois Stopple said.
Many of those in the audience were longtime political foes of Carrillo, who faces one misdemeanor charge of peeking in the July 13 incident. Others indicated they were newly minted critics. The event was hosted by a citizens group with members who have been vocal advocates of Carrillo’s ouster from office and the moderator was former Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, whom Carrillo beat in the last election.
Carpenter stressed that his role didn’t amount to an endorsement of the organizers, who have another meeting planned tonight in Sebastopol and a third in Santa Rosa next month.
“I’m not a convener,” Carpenter said. “I’m here to make sure we have peace.”
Though outnumbered, several Carrillo supporters made their presence and opinions known.
Guerneville resident Jim Rossi was the first in the audience to grab the microphone and he gave a spirited defense of the 32-year-old, second-term supervisor, calling him one of the brightest officials in local government. Carrillo’s resignation or recall would do the county and his 5th District a “disservice,” Rossi said.
“I’m not discounting the activity that he was involved in,” he said of the supervisor’s arrest on prowling and felony burglary allegations. “But we don’t want to put a big bull’s-eye on all of our public officials. Because they’re all fallible.”
Carrillo’s district director, Susan Upchurch, and Margarita Carrillo, his mother, both attended but did not speak.
The gathering spanned more than an hour and featured a largely open-ended discussion — derailed at times by several west county activists — about opinions of Carrillo’s arrest and what his constituents wanted to happen next.
Carrillo did not attend, saying again Wednesday that his ongoing legal case prevented him addressing his gathered critics and constituents.
“My decision to not attend the forum was specific to the items that they want to discuss,” he said. “At this time I don’t have the freedom to discuss that matter.”
The meeting came a day after Carrillo announced that he will resign his executive leadership post with a statewide organization that represents counties.
In a written statement, Carrillo said his decision rested largely on the shooting death last month of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy and the “community challenges” the tragedy had brought to light. Those issues will demand his focus in the next year, he said.
“Sonoma County and the Fifth District are my first priority,” he said in the statement.
Several sources who were at the annual meeting this week of the California State Association of Counties, however, questioned whether Carrillo had the support to remain on the organization’s board. One suggested he announced his move before that became clear in voting Wednesday.
Another source at the meeting said he thought Carrillo could have retained his seat had he sought to do so.
The sources spoke under condition of anonymity because of the sensitive political nature of the issue.
Carrillo was elected last year by fellow supervisors to serve as second vice president of CSAC in 2013. He was in line for the first vice president seat next year and, in 2015, the CSAC presidency.
The organization lobbies for county governments at the state Legislature, and before administrative agencies and the federal government.
Before July, Carrillo was seen by many as a rising star in the state Democratic Party. Bolstered by a commanding re-election victory, his eyes were on a seat in the state Legislature. His arrest scuttled those plans and led him to be passed over for a leadership post on Sonoma Clean Power, the new public electricity provider.
Stepping down from the CSAC post “wasn’t what I had planned,” he conceded Wednesday.
“I’m still going to be participating in some fashion on some committees or hopefully even on the CSAC board in the future,” he said by phone while en route to visit family members Wednesday and Thursday in the South Bay. “But at this point, the 5th District and county priorities, that is my steadfast commitment.”
At the meeting in Monte Rio, however, his strongest critics said he was unfit to remain in office.
“We do expect more of our politicians,” said Susan Keach, a Guerneville resident who identified herself as a county employee. “I, for one, would like to see him recalled.”
Others accused Carrillo of seeking political advantage by being unnecessarily tight-lipped about his case.
“There’s absolutely no reason he can’t come and talk to us tonight,” said Occidental resident Pieter Myers. “Don’t let anyone kid you; he’s hiding behind his lawyer’s coattails.”
Carrillo, asked earlier in the day for a response to that allegation, declined to comment.
At the end of the night, some at the meeting wondered if a decision on a next move would ever be made. It is now more than five months after Carrillo’s arrest, with his next court date set for Dec. 13. He has yet to enter a plea.
“Our discussion about emotional odds and ends isn’t going to lead anywhere,” said Leslie Warren of Guerneville. “At some point there has to be a very specific action, something focused and concrete.”
Organizers said they are still in listening mode.
“Tonight wasn’t for making a decision,” said Alice Chan, a Sebastopol resident and spokeswoman for the group Citizens for Accountability, which has organized the meetings.
A makeshift “ballot” asked attendees two ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions: whether they thought Carrillo should resign or be recalled. The results and speakers’ comments would be provided to Carrillo, organizers said.
“Tonight was for hearing how people felt, hearing their concerns and whether they think something ought to be done,” Chan said.
The Sebastopol meeting Thursday is from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Grange Hall. The Santa Rosa meeting is 6:30 to 8 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Finley Center.
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.