Petaluma council, school candidates face off in forums

Candidates for the three open seats on the Petaluma City Council squared off in two forums in the past week, providing voters with their positions on a number of issues ranging from development to city finances to marijuana regulations.

Planning commissioner Bill Wolpert, the self-styled progressive in the race, sought to differentiate himself from incumbent council members Mike Healy, Kathy Miller and Gabe Kearney at an event on Sept. 29 at the Petaluma Hotel and Oct. 4 at City Hall. Both forums were co-sponsored by the Argus-Courier.

The Oct. 4 forum also featured the three candidates for the two open seats on the Petaluma Joint Union High School District board. Former school administrator Frank Lynch and high school teacher Ellen Webster faced incumbent board member Mary Johnson, answering questions on the district budget and technology in the classroom, among other topics.

In the city council forum, Wolpert, an architect, leaned heavily on his experience reviewing development projects with the planning commission. He argued that the city needs more walkable, mixed-use development.

“I beg to differ that the current council has done a good job with the infill projects that we have,” he said in response to a question on development priorities. “We have developed over 45 acres of commercial that is generating less revenue per acre than our downtown. We need more density, mixed-use development around transit.”

Answering a question about street repairs and traffic relief, a top issue for Petaluma residents, Healy noted that the city council has funneled development fees intended for traffic mitigation toward building the Rainier crosstown connector.

“With Rainier, we’ve achieved $26 million that we’ve never had before,” he said. “That’s very real.”

Healy said that the city should push for a sales tax dedicated for road repairs. A similar approach this year failed to poll well enough to make the ballot because of what Healy said was a failure of city leaders to educate voters.

Wolpert questioned whether the Rainier Avenue extension was the best project to ease traffic, saying that extending Caulfield Lane at the southern end of the city might be better.

“I’m not sure that we need to educate the public,” he said. “We need to educate the city council about what the public really wants. I’m not sure that Rainier will relieve traffic as intended. Caulfield may be able to relieve more traffic.”

On the question of marijuana regulations, Miller, the mother of a high school student, said the city should wait and see what happens across the state if voters this November legalize the recreational use of the drug. She said Petaluma should keep its current ban on marijuana dispensaries within city limits.

“I think our ordinance is a good ordinance,” she said. “I’m comfortable with not having dispensaries in town. We should wait and see how it all shakes out.”

Wolpert, in contrast, said the city should welcome marijuana industries and use the tax revenue that they will generate to fund other priorities.

Kearney, a real estate agent with a background in public safety, said that the Petaluma Fire Department is adequately staffed, but said that the city should work to get police staffing back to the levels seen before recession-era cuts. The department is still needs about 10 officers to get back to those levels.

“Violent crime is low, but property crime is going up. Drug crime is going up,” he said. “We need to get back to the staffing level of 10 years ago.”

In the undercard forum, Lynch hammered his message of bringing more open communication to the school board, answering several questions on salary negotiations, bond revenue spending and Wi-Fi and pesticide use in schools with a promise for more transparency and collaboration with stakeholders.

“We need to sit down with groups and find pros and cons,” he said about listening to concerned parents. “Developing trust is really important.”

Webster, who teaches at Tomales High School, said that technology can be a useful tool in the classroom, but caution about relying too heavily on it.

“For 21st century citizens, technology is vital,” she said. “But it should be up to staff. Teachers should have a say in how its implemented. We need to be careful that we don’t exchange technology for the basic learning that students need.”

Johnson, who has served on the school board since March, said that she has considered a request to reinstate police officers on high school campuses, but not at the expense of cutting teacher positions. Known as resource officers, parent groups say they help combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse among teens.

“We’ve looked at it, and there isn’t money in the budget without cutting teachers,” she said. “I’m not sure resource officers are the answer. I think we need more education on the dangers of prescription drugs.”

The Sept. 29 forum was co-sponsored by the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Oct. 4 forum was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women.

(Contact Matt Brown at

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