CORRECTION: December 7, 2010:
This story misstated the position of Santa Rosa Councilman John Sawyer about a bridge project. Sawyer said he is inclined to vote against funding more studies of a proposed bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Highway 101. He said he does not want to "kill" the project but to delay spending money on it until more information is known, such as the location of a light rail station.
The balance of political power in Santa Rosa shifts this week, but instead of a smooth transition, the new City Council instead appears headed for a showdown over a bicycle bridge.
Councilman John Sawyer's threat to try to block the proposed pedestrian and bicycle bridge over Highway 101 as soon as the new majority is installed at Tuesday's meeting has outraged bicycle advocates and all but assured continued council acrimony.
"It's not a great way to start," said David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University. "There's 23 months to the new election and there's a lot of work to be done."
Proponents say blocking the bridge would turn away potential jobs, hamper economic development and hurt efforts to create a connection between Santa Rosa Junior College on the east side of the freeway and Coddingtown mall and a future light rail station on the west.
Sawyer's move "hit people to the core" because it showed them that elections have consequences, said Christine Culver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
"I think it was a bit of a surprise to folks to realize that a change on City Council could set bicycling in Santa Rosa back 10 years," Culver said.
Culver sent an "action alert" to her group's 1,100 members urging them to turn out at Tuesday's meeting to support the project, donning not only biking gear but work clothes to show they represent a broad swath of the community.
But Sawyer isn't backing down over a project the city has said could cost up to $20 million. He says the support he has received in recent days from constituents has only strengthened his resolve to block the project. The public isn't in the mood to see a large public works project with too many unknowns aimed at a relatively small group of users, he said.
"There are many people out there that are struggling, and to spend money like that right now is difficult to justify," Sawyer said.
The flare-up reflects the polarized political dynamic at work nationally, McCuan said. Voters remain surly following the Nov. 2 election, which tends to make politicians "hyper-sensitive" and compromise harder to achieve, he said.
In Santa Rosa, those who have held power for the past two years — the four more environmentally leaning council members, often referred to as "progressives" — and their supporters don't want to "go gently into that fair wind," McCuan said.
The council's most staunch environmentalist, Veronica Jacobi, lost her re-election bid. As a result, a slim 4-3 majority was regained by candidates supported by business and development interests.
Against this backdrop, the overpass has become a symbolic issue with no middle ground, one that risks opening wounds that are slow to heal, McCuan said.