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.
"I think we just have to have some common sense and get back to what is the best thing for Santa Rosa," he said.
All of the candidates stressed the need to foster a healthy economy that creates local jobs and helps the city balance its budget and provide essential services. Few expressed support for mandatory solar panels on large projects as a way to help the city meet its climate protection goals. And there were clear differences on such issues as district elections.
For the first time, Olivares publicly opposed district elections, which is on the ballot as Measure Q.
He said district elections would require the city to go from the entire city voting for each council member to carving the city into seven voting districts. This "takes away 85 percent" of the people's ability to vote for council members, he said.
"Many of you would not be voting for a City Council member if we had district elections in place at this time," he said.
Wine industry executive Hans Dippel and Vandenburg also opposed district elections, while Wysocky, Carlstrom, Julie Combs and Caroline Banuelos supported them as an important way to bring diversity to city politics.
Santa Rosa Junior College budget crisis
Operating budget: $161 million
Budget shortfall: At least $6.5 million
Projected savings in cuts to summer classes: $2 million
Students enrolled last summer in online and on-campus classes: 13,234
Total employees: 3,000