We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

When Sonoma County government offices reopen this week, many after a mandatory, seven-day closure over the holidays, there will be plenty of new faces occupying top job slots.

New county supervisors Mike McGuire and David Rabbitt, Sheriff Steve Freitas, District Attorney Jill Ravitch and County Counsel Bruce Goldstein all begin in their positions this week before a ceremonial swearing-in Jan 11at the first Board of Supervisors meeting.

State officials associated with the county, including six new superior court judges and new county schools chief Steve Herrington, will also take office over the next two weeks.

The new county leaders are taking over from predecessors who tallied a combined 56 years at the helm of county government. They include supervisors Paul Kelley and Mike Kerns, Sheriff Bill Cogbill and County Counsel Steven Woodside, all of whom are retiring, and outgoing District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua.

Together with the earlier retirements of two veteran supervisors, Tim Smith and Mike Reilly, it brings a new era in county government.

"I think we can honestly say that an era has passed," Supervisor Efren Carrillo said. In 2009, the now-29-year-old Carrillo replaced Reilly, who retired after 12 years as the west county supervisor. The same year, Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, took over for Smith, who held the office for 20 years.

"It's definitely a changing of the guard, without a doubt," said Zane, 51. She said the shift mirrors changes in county population and demographics.

County government now has its first female district attorney in Ravitch, its first female county administrator in Veronica Ferguson, who started last February, and, in Carrillo, its first elected Latino representative.

"It's a healthy reflection of a democracy," Zane said.

Yet given the county's fiscal challenges, the inaugural toasts coming from county headquarters on Administration Drive next week might be accompanied by a collective gulp.

The county's projected general fund budget deficit for next fiscal year, estimated at $27 million just months ago, now is about $36 million without the use of special reserve funds.

Plunging property tax revenue and rising employee costs could grow that gap before July, when the next fiscal year begins. Already, in the past two fiscal years, deficits of roughly $62 million and $22 million, respectively, resulted in the elimination of nearly 300 filled and unfilled jobs and about 95 layoffs.

Another round of deep job cuts and layoffs is likely, officials said. Supervisors are set to begin those discussions in their third meeting of the year, on Jan. 25.

"We're going to have to become leaner and meaner than we already are," Zane said. "Some departments can do that. Others, not so much."

The grim forecast could force the new supervisors, sheriff and district attorney to shelve some campaign promises and focus instead on defending existing services and programs they deem essential, political observers said.

Already, Ravitch, Freitas and Goldstein — who is not elected and serves at the pleasure of the board — said they are looking at key jobs they may not be able to fill or programs they may have to cut.

Disagreement among leaders over those decisions could produce gridlock, some say.

"It isn't clear with this many new folks what they truly believe in setting priorities on what to cut," said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political science professor. "Because this is what we're talking about — what there is to cut. It's not just fiscal austerity. It's much worse."

McCuan also doubted that the new leaders would have the same ability and influence as outgoing and former county officials to fend off local impacts from the state's budget crisis.

Past, current and incoming supervisors dismissed that claim in separate interviews last week.

"That's absolute malarkey," said McGuire, the new north county supervisor.

Leadership posts in county government associations at the state and national level, lobbying and work experience at the state capitol and years of combined service in local government will all keep the county at the forefront of state politics, supervisors said.

"We're going to fight like hell for the residents of Sonoma County," McGuire, 31, said.

Some former and current officials also joined the new leaders in saying the daunting budget challenges facing the county could result in better cooperation among the new leadership.

"The fiscal mess the county is in is going to determine what this board (of supervisors) is going to do more than the personality of its members," said Reilly, the former west county supervisor.

"It's the reality of pretty much every level of government right now," said Rabbitt, 50, the new south county supervisor. Hopefully, he said, the board will be "coming together" to "make decisions that put this county on good financial footing for years to come."

Almost no one among the new and current leaders, however, sees a halt to the county job and service cuts or a rebound in government revenues within the next year.

"It's going to be rough for at least the next two years," said Supervisor Valerie Brown, 65, the new board's lone two-term veteran and a former state assemblywoman. She said the county will be going into "full-bore defense mode" to fend off any revenue takeaways from the state or additional transfer of state services to the county.

"I don't think there's going to be much to hang our hats on, except for keeping people safe and off the streets," she said.

To avoid more year-over-year cuts, county officials have been looking at consolidating departments and narrowing the government's focus to core public safety, infrastructure and social service programs.

Partnerships with cities, nonprofit groups and the private sector are also now seen by most county leaders as a vital way to stretch public dollars.

Under fire from labor groups, supervisors have resorted increasingly to those outside contracts, especially for health services such as drug- and alcohol-abuse counseling.

But such moves may be preferable to maintaining county-only programs with bare-bones budgets, officials said.

"I hate to cut, cut, cut and think that we're providing something that we're really not," said Rabbitt, likely the most conservative voice on the new board of supervisors.

A majority of that new board, including Rabbitt, Carrillo and Zane, also have been vocal about the need to rein in the cost of employee retirement benefits.

Taxpayer contributions to the county's pension system, nearly $50 million now, are set to rise by millions over the next six years to replace large stock market losses in 2008 and cover past salary and pension increases along with other benefit changes.

Taxpayer advocates have cheered administration plans to tackle the pension issue, though some experts have said a proposal to reduce benefits for new workers would not go far enough to solve the county's problems.

"This has been kicked down the road" by previous boards of supervisors, said Jack Atkin, president of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. "If (the new board) did nothing this year but work on and solve this problem, it would be a successful year."

Labor representatives have acknowledged some need for pension reform. But they remain critical of past decisions on employee compensation, including a rollback in medical coverage and salary increases for managers. They hope the new board will be more open to that input.

"If we seriously looked at the overall picture, there are some very expensive strategies the county chose to use that need to be adjusted," said Bill Robotka of the Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20 IFPTE, which represents about 200 county workers.

Also at the top of the county agenda will be the hiring of permanent managers for the county water agency and departments overseeing personnel and information technology. Those decisions could come at the end of this month.

Several land use issues also are looming. A draft environmental review of plans to expand the runway at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport is due out this spring. Later this year, the county Planning Commission is expected to take up Preservation Ranch, the proposed 1,800-acre forest-to-vineyard conversion project with 60 potential home sites on nearly 20,000 acres outside of Annapolis.

That proposal and other land-use matters are likely to refuel the county's perennial battle between environmental and business interests.

Depending on the issue, a majority of supervisors could vote in favor of development or environmental protection, board watchers said. McGuire and Brown represent the likeliest swing votes.

Still, building industry leaders like their chances. The recent approvals of the Dutra asphalt plant and Roblar Road rock quarry, and election day wins for business-backed candidates including McGuire and Rabbitt, should set the stage for a more streamlined and straightforward development-review process, industry leaders said.

"We'd like that in a good economy. We demand it in a bad one," said Keith Woods, chief executive of the North Coast Builders Exchange in Santa Rosa.

But environmental leaders, some of whom have promised court challenges of the asphalt plant and rock quarry, said they remain hopeful the new county leadership will uphold green ideals, including city-centered growth, sustainable transportation and open space protection.

Any step away from those goals will only be temporary, they said.

"This (leadership change) is nothing new," said John Crevelli, 79, a retired Santa Rosa Junior College history professor and leading figure in the decades-long fight to protect the county's coast.

"The pendulum swings back and forth. Today, given the economy, it's time for it to swing (toward business interests.) But it will only be a matter time until it swings back. It might be sooner than some people think."

Show Comment