The eight candidates running for Santa Rosa City Council fielded questions about district elections, gang violence, mandatory solar panels and bridging the council's ideological divide during a forum Monday, giving voters their best chance yet to size up those vying for four seats Nov. 6.
Two rival City Council members and six other candidates outlined how they would work to make the city a better place to live, in many cases offering stark differences over the future of the city.
The debate offered no surprises or direct confrontations, but Councilman Gary Wysocky did accuse Mayor Ernesto Olivares of being part of a council divide that Olivares now says he wants to heal through his endorsement of fellow candidate Erin Carlstrom.
"While Erin and I do not agree on many issues facing the city, we do agree on a vision for the future that heals the political rifts of Santa Rosa and focuses on bringing people together to solve the problems that are facing our community," Olivares said in his opening remarks.
But Wysocky called the move an election year "stunt" and said Olivares' unwillingness to work collaboratively was made clear from the moment he became mayor. He cited a letter Olivares sent to the Mayor's and Councilmembers' Associations of Sonoma County listing only the council's four majority members as being able to speak for the city.
"Mr. Olivares, you sent a letter saying only these four can speak for Santa Rosa the very first morning you were mayor," Wysocky said. "That was very inappropriate."
The event was co-hosted by the League of Women Voters and American Association of University Women and could prove significant because it took place in the City Council chambers, was televised and will be replayed later in the month.
The upcoming election could be pivotal for the deeply politically divided, seven-member council.
Four council members, including Olivares, backed by business groups tend to favor fewer regulations on business, while three candidates supported by labor and environmental groups tend to give more weight to the input of neighborhood groups.
Asphalt plant operator Shaan Vandenburg, a father of two, said he hoped he could help the council move past the polarization.