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Drama in city council race

Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 12:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 12:03 p.m.

Controversial candidate endorsements from the Sonoma County Democratic Party in the Petaluma City Council race have highlighted the Petaluma progressive political faction's apparent effort to gain back majority control of the council by pushing endorsements toward candidates that reflect their political views.

According to three Sonoma County Democrats present at last week's endorsement meeting who spoke to the Argus-Courier on the condition of anonymity due to fear of losing their political membership within the party, Petaluma Mayor David Glass and former Mayor Pam Torliatt used the democratic party to advance their own political agendas and “vendettas.”

Following speeches by Glass, Torliatt and State Assemblyman Michael Allen urging delegates to endorse incumbent Vice Mayor Tiffany Renée and newcomers Jason Davies and Alicia Kae Herries, the county Democratic Party chose to endorse the three progressive candidates, and not incumbents Gabe Kearney and Mike Healy and newcomer Kathy Miller, also Democrats.

“It wasn't about the Democratic Party at all,” said one person who has been involved in the county Democratic Party for decades. “It became completely about local projects and advancing personal agendas. How you have a democratic endorsement without Gabe Kearney — one of the most active Democrats in the North Bay — is beyond me. But his lack of endorsement came because he doesn't vote right down the line with Petaluma's progressive faction when it comes to land use and development.”

Kearney, who was endorsed by the county's Democratic Committee two years ago during his run for city council, was the only Democrat on the council to be selected by the Obama campaign to attend the Democratic Convention this year. He is also a longtime member of the Sonoma County Democratic Party and the Sonoma County Young Democrats.

The process for selecting candidates for endorsement by the county's Democratic Party starts with an initial committee that interviews each candidate. After the interviews, the three-person committee makes a recommendation to a larger committee, which can either follow the recommendation or make new suggestions. Afterwards, the recommendation is passed onto the entire committee for votes of endorsement.

The initial committee that interviewed all the candidates came back to the second, larger group, with a recommendation to endorse Kearney, Healy and Davies. Even so, the larger committee changed its recommendation to back Renée and Davies, but did not endorse Herries.

“When it came up at committee, Pam (Torliatt) spoke and encouraged everyone to vote for Renée, Davies and Herries,” said another person who attended the meeting. “Glass spoke more negatively towards Kearney, citing Gabe's decision to not endorse him to the state's redevelopment Oversight Committee earlier this year as a reason for not wanting to endorse him now. It became about personality clashes between Torliatt and Glass against Kearney and it shouldn't have anything to do with who the Sonoma County Democratic Party endorses.”

Glass responded that the initial committee that had recommended Kearney, Healy and Davies did not have a single Petaluman on it. The goal was to better represent Petaluma's values, he said.

“I certainly have the right to endorse my political beliefs,” he said. “I said that I didn't feel it was an appropriate decision for Gabe not to endorse me for the Oversight Committee, but that wasn't all I talked about. I also talked about the strengths of the other candidates. I said what I said and I'm not shying away from it.”

Torliatt said in a statement this week that she advocated for endorsing Davies, Herries and Renée because, out of all the candidates, she feels those three have best reflected the Democratic platform in their voting records and values.

Others who attended the meeting said that Glass and Torliatt pressured delegates to vote their way.

“With a current mayor, a former mayor and a state assemblyman all basically telling delegates how to vote, that puts a significant amount of pressure on the delegates,” said a person at the meeting.

Allen, who is running now to represent Petaluma in the state assembly against Marc Levine — who Kearney has publicly endorsed — said that the only reason he was at the endorsement meeting was that his alternate couldn't attend. He said that he went so that he did not lose his vote.

“I made my endorsements because I know the candidates,” Allen said. “I just tried to focus on the best partnerships I thought the assembly could have with the candidates.”

Another member at the meeting speculated that division between Glass, Torliatt and Kearney stems from Kearney's vote to approve the proposed Deer Creek Village shopping center, which many Petaluma progressives have opposed. Glass voted to oppose the development, which includes Friedman's Home Improvement, and Torliatt wrote a letter to the city opposing the project.

The Petaluma Police Officers Association, who has publically endorsed Kearney, Healy and Miller and has long been supportive of large retail development projects that will generate increases in sales tax revenue for city services, also voiced concern.

“We're troubled with what happened at this most recent Sonoma County Democratic Committee endorsement meeting,” said POA President Paul Gilman. “It shouldn't be in the Petaluma City Council race. You should never have a sitting mayor pushing his agenda onto the voters.”

Glass' recent announcement that he had organized a city council candidate forum and debate on Measure X — the Petaluma Friends of Recreation parcel tax measure — on Oct. 2 at the Sunrise Assisted Living Facility drew similar criticism. Glass said that the forum, moderated by his former co-worker, radio personality Steve Jaxon of KSRO, will be a change from the normal political forum.

“You hear from the public that these questions and forums are very boring,” said Glass. “Steve Jaxon is an entertainer. It will be a different forum from the normal kind.”

But some worry that the forum's impartiality would be tainted since Glass has openly spoken out against certain candidates. “Why would candidates that were just attacked by Glass want to attend his forum?” asked Gilman. “He's already publicly shown that he's going to push for different candidates and going to actively fight against others.”

Glass acknowledged that while he organized the forum, he will not write the questions and has no intention of even attending. “The questions will be written by the seniors at Sunrise Living and by Steve Jaxon,” he said. “If you believe in freedom of speech, you have to believe in the right of someone like Jaxon to ask questions to anyone running for council. As to the notion that the forum is sabotage, I don't have to prove anything to anyone. Candidates can show up or not show up, I personally don't care.”

Kearney said that he will go to any candidate forum, but would like to know the ground rules before attending. Healy said he is waiting to hear what the format will be before committing. “I'm not intending to walk into something without knowing the ground rules,” he said. He added that he contacted KRSO about the format of the forum and has not yet received a response.

Miller, who is running on a slate with Healy, said that she currently has a conflicting appointment that night and is unsure as to whether she'll be able to attend the event.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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