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Petaluma Mayor-elect Barrett ready to get down to work

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Two days after her election win, Mayor-elect Teresa Barrett was jubilant as she walked around downtown Petaluma greeting well-wishers who offered congratulations.

At a Starbucks on Petaluma Boulevard, a group of constituents broke into applause as they recognized her. One said that he voted for her because of her campaign pledge to help secure funding to dredge the Petaluma River.

Barrett said that she had just received a congratulatory phone call from Rep. Jared Huffman, a supporter and ally in the search for river dredging funds. She said she hoped to work with the congressman to secure the necessary dredging funds.

It is one of many issues that Barrett hopes to address using her considerable connections as a longtime Petaluma politician, and her newly won pulpit in the mayor’s chair. After a hard fought race, which she was winning by nearly 9 points over rival Mike Harris in unofficial returns, Barrett is turning to the tough task of governing.

With an electoral boost from like-minded city council candidates — self-identified progressives D’Lynda Fischer and Kevin McDonnell both appeared to win seats Tuesday — Barrett can claim a mandate to put her stamp on the future direction of the city.

“I do think that there will be more pressure to do the things that are achievable that we said we want to do,” said Barrett, 70, who served three terms on the city council.

The first order of business, one that could come before she’s even sworn into office on Jan. 7, is choosing a successor to City Manager John Brown, who is retiring this month after 10 years running the city. A subcommittee of outgoing Mayor David Glass, Councilman Mike Healy and Councilwoman Kathy Miller are working with a recruitment firm to winnow applicants down to a short list.

The full city council, the council members-elect and city department heads will interview the top candidates in mid December with the hope of making an offer at the council’s last meeting of the year Dec. 17. Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun will be interim city manager until Brown’s successor is on board.

“I’m looking for someone with transit-oriented development experience,” Barrett said. “I would love that. And they have to be really good with financials. The budget is the restraint on what we can do.”

Barrett’s preference in a city manager signals her priorities for the coming term. With calls to build our way out of an ever growing housing crisis, Barrett prefers a measured approach to growth, a stance that set her apart from her political rivals.

She would like to focus new developments on vacant parcels near Petaluma’s downtown, places where residents can live above store fronts and people can ditch their cars to walk to shops and restaurants or to transit hubs to commute to work. She has accused the majority on the city council of ignoring Petaluma’s core urban planning documents that call for more transit-oriented development.

She is also in favor of higher development fees and requiring developers to add extra perks like bike paths.

“I’d like to see development that is paying its way,” she said.

The new mayor will have additional ammo to tackle another major campaign pledge, fixing the city’s potholed streets. Voters rejected Proposition 6, which would have repealed the state gas tax increase. With the key revenue source surviving the ballot challenge, the city stands to receive a $1 million injection to pave the streets.

“We are absolutely committed to getting that money onto the streets,” she said.

While street paving will likely ramp up immediately, work on the Rainier crosstown connector will take longer. A project to widen Highway 101 and make way for the Rainier extension won’t be finished for another four years. In the meantime, Barrett said she wants to convene workshops to figure out how to pay for the project.

“We have four years. We have an actual date when we can start Rainier,” she said. “We have four years to figure out how we are going to fund this enormously expensive engineering project.”

Funding, not just for Rainier, but for a host of city priorities, will be high on Barrett’s list of issues to tackle first. The police force is depleted, firefighting equipment is aging and city facilities need repairs. On top of that, the city’s share of pension costs is expected to grow considerably in the next five years, meaning officials like Barrett will have to do more with less.

A new revenue source seems all but inevitable, and Barrett said tax measures could hit the 2020 ballot. She is not in favor of raising the sales tax — she opposed a one-cent sales tax proposal in 2015. Rather, she said a combination of different taxes should be considered, including a parcel tax and a tax on the sale of homes. She is intrigued by a measure voters in Oakland passed this year that taxes owners of vacant parcels to encourage infill development.

“For the 2020 ballot, we need to look at an array of taxes that affect different people,” Barrett said. “The wiggle room in the budget is just gone. It’s going to be all hands on deck.”

While the mayor of Petaluma is directly elected, which is unique among Sonoma County cities, the position comes with little extra authority aside from running meetings and attending community functions. Barrett recognizes that she will be one vote out of a council of seven.

An ally of Glass, the outgoing mayor, Barrett often found herself among the minority in key votes before the council. With the addition of Fischer and McDonnell, the new mayor could build a coalition to support her initiatives, but may still be in the minority on some decisions.

“Instead of losing 5-2 now I’ll be losing 4-3,” she joked.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)