Candidates offer differing visions for Petaluma at first forum
Election season came into focus at City Hall Tuesday night with the first of three candidate forums over the next two weeks, giving Petaluma voters a glimpse of their sizable pool of contenders seeking citywide office this year.
Hosted by the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women, the three candidates for mayor and the seven pursuing three seats on the Petaluma City Council publicly weighed in on some of the key issues dominating discussions on the campaign trail.
While there was general consensus on what the most pressing items are – like housing, roads and public safety – the spectrum of personality differences was apparent, as was their individual approaches to policymaking.
In the mayoral race, voters are deciding between two veteran council members and a far-reaching political outsider.
Teresa Barrett, a three-term councilwoman and former researcher for a global policy think tank, said many of the city’s current issues are connected to a lack of enforcement of Petaluma’s key planning documents.
The 39-year resident also advocated for partnering with county, state and federal agencies to address staffing challenges at public safety departments and for assisting key nonprofits like Committee on the Shelterless and Petaluma People Services Center.
“I have worked very hard over the eight to 12 years that I’ve been on this council to turn over every possible way of raising money through taxes that taxed others before I came to the voters of Petaluma and asked you to pay,” said Barrett, 70. “I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of that.”
Political newcomer Brian Powell, 38, has been running to provide a different perspective, and was the only candidate that did not endorse Measure M, the county tax to help fund local parks.
His responses, which often elicited a reaction from the audience, called for drastic changes like a complete halt on development, based on his belief that Petaluma is unsustainably overcrowded.
“We need to stop what we’ve been doing,” Powell said. “There’s quite a few (housing) projects already underway now. After those are finished, Corona, Lakeville – things aren’t going to be going so well.”
Former councilman Mike Harris, who served on the council for 12 years and was narrowly defeated by Mayor David Glass in 2014, hopes to see more compromises on polarizing issues that can “bring people together,” he said.
Harris, 47, called for continued economic development and revenue-building efforts like tax measures or profitable negotiations with the Sonoma-Marin Fair - something most candidates agreed was needed - to help staff public safety departments and fund vital infrastructure projects like the Rainier crosstown connector.
The differences in candidates was perhaps most evident in the crowded city council race. Although there were common stances when it came to moving city buildings to the fairgrounds, using tax revenue to increase police funding and building high-density housing in the urban core.
Longtime municipal worker Kevin McDonnell, 61, who has served on several different committees and co-founded a citizens group for smart growth, wants to establish greater transparency from the city to help restore the public’s trust in elected officials.
“The council is the community’s connecting point with policy and with the city staff,” McDonnell said. “The council is that ombudsmen and is that advocate for the people here. We want to make sure that happens because all the city’s business is based on trust.”
Lifelong Petaluma resident Robert Conklin, 40, a fleet manager in San Francisco and member of the Tree Advisory Committee, continued to champion his representation of working, middle-class families. Key to that would be an aggressive push toward completing the Rainier crosstown connector.
“Let’s not just say we’re for Rainier,” Conklin said. “Let’s turn every stone. If citizens and council members want to go door to door to sell Rainier bonds, that’s what we’re going to have to do. We’re going to have to think creatively about finding money to make this a reality. It’s been long enough.”
Michael Regan, 38, the former Transit Advisory Committee chair and a small business owner, said the city needs to perform a deeper audit of the police department to understand where its staffing issues lie. He also pointed to his knowledge of housing as a mortgage adviser and perspective with a young family as distinguishing attributes.
“With housing being one of our biggest issues, wouldn’t it make sense to have someone who actually knows housing on the council?” Regan said.