Separation between candidates at second Petaluma forum

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With mail-in ballots arriving this week, Petaluma voters got a closer look at their mayoral and city council candidates Tuesday night as they weighed in on some of the issues facing the city.

Hosted by the Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce and the Argus-Courier, the hopefuls debated items including cannabis regulation, increasing minimum wage, banning fireworks, and the controversial Water Street art project in a forum at the Hotel Petaluma.

The three mayoral candidates – Teresa Barrett, Mike Harris and Brian Powell – also got a chance to face a series of questions separate from the seven members of the city council race, who are seeking three seats. They were able to spotlight their leadership qualities, how they’d overcome partisanship, and their differing approaches to green-lighting development.

The conversation on possibly amending the city’s marijuana business policies, which currently allows for two delivery services, was one of the more robust discussions of the night, and helped differentiate candidates that have often been on the same side of issues like housing and infrastructure.

Most candidates believed overturning the ban on dispensaries would provide a new stream of much-needed tax revenue that could address many of the city’s needs.

Council candidate Robert Conklin said he “would like to see the taxation of it go to public safety, especially with DUIs on the rise,” and to also use some of the funds for sponsoring youth counseling to deter drug use.

“It does have medical benefits, and there’s money to be had,” Conklin said.

However, Harris and council candidates Kevin McDonnell, chair of the Recreation, Music and Parks Commission, and Michael Regan, a local business owner, said the city would be wise to follow a “wait and see” approach.

With only one cannabis delivery service permitted and a second request for business proposals going out later this year, Petaluma has yet to see its policies play out.

“Do we want to chase this taxation money from this group, or try and solve our multiple financial problems more broadly, more evenly?” McDonnell asked. “I’d rather wait and see. I wouldn’t change what the city has for its cannabis ordinance at this time. … Other cities are facing this. We’ll learn a lot by paying attention to all the communities around us.”

Another topic that helped discern the candidates was on whether the city should accelerate the steps to increasing its minimum wage to $15 an hour. State labor laws call for the increase by 2022.

Retired physician Dennis Pocekay said he was in favor of speeding up the process with a phased-in approach since it would help attack the affordable housing issue by providing residents with more income.

“You can either reduce the price of housing or increase wages,” he said.

The two businessmen seeking office, Harris and Regan, were opposed to pursuing a contrast with the state’s timeline.

“I don’t want to put our businesses at a competitive disadvantage out there,” Harris said. “I think it’s very important to follow what the state is already doing.”

On the public art installation on Water Street, a polarizing topic that has brought the city’s ability to effectively conduct community outreach into focus, Harris and Powell said they did not support the project for that location. Regan gave the bath tubs on stilts project an outright “no,” while the candidates currently on the council spoke more to the process behind its approval.

The lone council incumbent, Dave King, a local civil rights attorney, said it was the decision of the Public Art Committee, and the council’s role is to make sure the city is adhering to its ordinances.

“We could certainly improve our public input, although I would say how it got here was a four-year process with many public meetings,” King said. “Apparently not enough word got out and that’s a situation that can be improved. But my opinion on the art piece is irrelevant. My job as a council member is to respect our law and also follow our processes.”

Barrett agreed with his response.

During a discussion on budget priorities, Planning Commissioner Scott Alonso called for an infrastructure tax to fund road projects and improve city-owned buildings, which have deferred maintenance.

To get the tax approved, he said the next council should be more accessible and more transparent with its constituents.

“The challenges right now – if you looked at the animal shelter, the bath tubs – what was the common theme through that? People didn’t feel heard; they didn’t feel engaged with,” Alonso said. “We have to be out there talking with you, having town hall meetings, holding office hours. Figuring out where we can find those priorities and be honest about what we’re going to do because we need the money and we need it fast.”

On housing, former urban planner and nonprofit consultant D’Lynda Fischer said the city needed to return to its planning roots established in the early 1900s when the urban core was first developed.

“Our forefathers really understood what they were doing,” the council candidate said. “They put retail on the street, on the front, and they put housing and workspaces above. I’d like to extend that mixed-use that we have in our downtown, along transit corridors, to build more mixed-use housing … and we can go up to five stories.”

Several candidates took more forceful positions on the Rainier crosstown connector, too. Regan said he “didn’t care” how long it would take, but progress needs to continue and introduced the idea of using revenue from the gas tax to bond for Rainier funding – assuming Proposition 6 does not pass.

“If (voters) do not repeal the gas tax, we can actually bond off that to help pay for Rainier,” Regan said. “That’s something that hasn’t been available for a long time that now is.”

Barrett, however, called out the hypocrisy of the Rainier debate and the “trust me” stance elected officials have been taking for decades. The three-term councilwoman advocated for more substantive discussions on funding from a council that prioritized alleviating traffic congestion.

“Without the funding, this is never going to happen and it is a hollow dream,” Barrett said. “There has been a deal with the devil, and the devil is the promise that we will do this without really funding through. The $21 million (that’s in place) is really a drop in the bucket.”

During the second session with just the mayoral candidates, Powell, a political outsider, expressed his concerns about overpopulation, which has been a running theme for his campaign.

“What I’d like to see in five to 10 years is the same city you see now,” he said. “We cannot add any more people. The city was never intended to hold more than 50,000, and we’re over that now. We’re filling the fish bowl beyond what we can repair. We keep creating problems by adding people.”

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

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