Candidates offer differing visions for Petaluma at first forum

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UPCOMING CANDIDATE FORUMS

Hosted by the Petaluma Argus-Courier and Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce:

Tuesday, Oct. 9, at Hotel Petaluma (205 Kentucky Street)

5:30 p.m.

Hosted by the North Bay Organizing Project:

Saturday, Oct. 13, at Petaluma Regional Library (100 Fairgrounds Drive)

12 p.m.

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.”

UPCOMING CANDIDATE FORUMS

Hosted by the Petaluma Argus-Courier and Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce:

Tuesday, Oct. 9, at Hotel Petaluma (205 Kentucky Street)

5:30 p.m.

Hosted by the North Bay Organizing Project:

Saturday, Oct. 13, at Petaluma Regional Library (100 Fairgrounds Drive)

12 p.m.

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.

Scott Alonso, 32, pointed to his voting record as vice chair of the planning commission and his “fresh perspective” as not only the youngest candidate but as an east side renter. He pledged to institute office hours and hold regular town halls to enhance public input.

“We need to engage folks in a public way,” Alonso said in regards to the fairgrounds. “It shouldn’t be done behind closed doors. But ultimately I think you need to look at multiple uses, either a hotel there or we should add some housing. The fair should remain but certainly in a smaller capacity.”

Retired urban planner and nonprofit consultant D’Lynda Fischer, 58, addressed each issue through her lens of sustainability and desire to see Petaluma take a more active role adhering to its guiding policies that call for an environmentally-friendly future.

As for the traits she’s looking for in the next city manager, Fischer said she’s looking for a proven leader that mirrors the community and is “someone that can change the culture of City Hall — somebody that can create a culture of a can-do attitude to get things done.”

The lone incumbent on this year’s ballot is local attorney Dave King, 61, who often demonstrated intimate knowledge with many of the issues due to his ongoing service on the council. He spoke candidly about the fiscal realities the city is facing.

“We have a serious financial crisis in this city,” King said. “The council has been briefed on it regularly for several years. Our pension liabilities are going up, our costs are going up, we barely have a parks budget, we don’t have a planning department, and we have to speak truth to people.”

Dennis Pocekay, 69, a retired doctor and social justice activist, emphasized a community-oriented approach to resolving many of Petaluma’s upcoming challenges. He also wasn’t afraid to criticize elements of disaster preparedness, which he has followed closely since his volunteerism during last year’s fires, and condemned the lack of inclusion for the Latino community.

“While we’re sitting here talking, people are moving out of Petaluma. Families are moving out of Petaluma,” Pocekay said. “Everyone says this is a crisis but nothing is getting done. My goal is to simply fix a problem our society renders … I want to build higher, denser, smaller and near transit.”

Petaluma School Board candidates weigh in

Prior to the mayoral and city council forum, six of the seven candidates pursuing three open seats on the Petaluma Joint Union High School District board spent about an hour discussing the issues facing local schools.

The district, which represents nearly 7,500 students across eight elementary schools and 10 secondary schools, is one of the largest employers in Petaluma with a $74 million budget and 878 staff members.

During Tuesday night’s forum, the only consensus that was reached was on the need for additional revenue to bolster Petaluma City Schools.

Sheri Chlebowski, 47, an attorney, former police officer and mother of three students, is seeking reelection for her third term after spending much of the past year lobbying in Sacramento for a more equitable share of funding.

Aside from attaining capital, one of her points that resonated the most was on the workload for counselors in the city’s secondary schools, which are currently being stretched thin.

“Our counselors have about 300 students apiece,” Chlebowski said. “Between trying to get them to their colleges or careers and dealing with pressing issues, it’s just too much. I would like to improve that.”

The youngest candidate, 25-year-old Caitlin Quinn, said she would prioritize the mental health of students and make teachers feel like they’re being valued. The UC Berkeley and Casa Grande High School graduate, who works as a nonprofit communications coordinator, also called for establishing partnerships with various organizations in the community to reduce sexual violence.

“The resources are out there,” Quinn said. “We don’t have to put this on teachers and counselors. We just have to be creative and look places, and model respecting women and respecting all people ourselves.”

Like Chlebowski, local attorney Mike Baddeley, 63, is seeking reelection to his third term on the school board. He echoed Quinn’s sentiment about elevating women by better modeling the right behavior as adults.

Additionally, he pointed to unique curriculum Petaluma City Schools offers its students, and the reputation of the district as having the highest graduation rate in the county and one of the lowest dropout rates in the state.

“I could see in the not-too-distant future where your students will have opportunities to take classes at, say, both our comprehensive high schools on a block schedule,” Baddeley said. “They go to Petaluma then come over to Casa, so they’ll be more like district students as opposed to just high school students.”

St. Vincent de Paul counselor Joanna Paun, 40, who previously guided students at Kenilworth Junior High, said she wanted to bridge the “adversarial” disconnect between teachers and the district, and empower educators so they aren’t afraid to speak up.

For students, Paun wants to make sure they’re more informed of their rights and sees the lack of adherence to enforcing Title IX as “the more pressing issue.”

“Sexual harassment, sexual violence on campus is completely unacceptable, and I just think it has gone on for too long,” she said. “I don’t think parents even know what Title IX is; I don’t think students know what Title IX is. Students need to know when and how to report sexual violence and sexual harassment.”

Retired English teacher Mady Cloud, 69, presented her progressive vision of a “collaborative governance” approach that brings all stakeholders in the community and regional level into the fold.

She also wants to see the district website “used more dynamically,” and maximize the available technological resources to increase visibility.

“We have all these wonderful things going on the bond and had all sorts of projects going on over the summer,” Cloud said. “Why not have movies of what’s going on, and what our bond money is being spent on? We could have the students involved.”

Phoebe Ellis, 49, the third incumbent and local attorney seeking reelection for her second term, wants to build on the current vision of the school board and ensure Petaluma students continue to be ready for the next phase of their lives.

More importantly, though, Ellis said she would fight for higher pay for local educators – something that may be coming to the forefront once again with contract negotiations looming.

“I feel very passionately about all our teachers and all of our staff here at Petaluma City Schools,” Ellis said. “We are continually working to support them and find money to give them a raise, which they deserve, and to continue to provide them healthy benefit packages, which is very important. We recognize that in order to keep schools great here, we need to compensate our teachers and staff.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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