The first debate in the 3rd District supervisorial race Tuesday night featured incumbent Shirlee Zane confidently defending her leadership record against accusations from challenger Tim Smith that she hasn't done enough to solve the county's pension crisis.
The spirited but civil debate touched on a range of issues, from funding for roads, transparency in government contracts, the SMART train and economic development.
But time and again, former Rohnert Park City Councilman Smith returned to what is the central theme of his insurgent candidacy — the need for swift and significant pension reform.
He likened Sonoma County to the frog that isn't smart enough to jump out of the slowly heating pan of water.
"I'm here basically tonight to tell you taxpayers, voters and residents of Sonoma County &‘It's time to jump!'" Smith said. "Get out of the boiling water, because the status quo isn't working."
Zane warned the audience of about 30 listeners at the League of Women Voters forum at Rohnert Park City Hall that they "should be suspect" when they hear a candidate offering easy solutions to complex problems.
She noted that she and Supervisor David Rabbitt spent six months researching and writing a pension overhaul plan that calls for raising retirement ages, capping pensions, prohibiting spiking and reducing county debt.
"It's not just a piece of paper. It's a plan that actually is already being put into place," Zane said. "It took us years to get to where we are today, and it's going to take a little time to get out."
She suggested Smith was calling for "breaking contracts" with unions, which she said would cost the county millions in legal fees. But Smith countered that he never suggested any such thing. Rather, he said he was calling on supervisors to "show leadership from the top" by imposing "severe cuts" to their own compensation and top county management to show unions they are serious about making significant changes. He added that he will forgo a county pension if elected.
"What we have is people at the top, and that includes the supervisors, who are self-interested in perpetuating a system that is dysfunctional," Smith said.
Smith, 57, is a former insurance attorney who is now self-employed. He has a modest pension from his time at one insurance firm and a 401(k) from another, he said.
Smith tried to position himself as more fiscally responsible than Zane on several issues, while Zane called into question Smith's own leadership and qualifications for the job.
Zane, 52, suggested that a quarter-cent sales tax might be one way the county could address its massive backlog of road maintenance, calling it "a way we could put $16 million back to our roads."
But Smith called that idea a "non-starter" because voters recognize that the county has yet to get other areas of its fiscal house in order.
Until the county gets a handle on the "out-of-control, underfunded pension system ... we are not going to be able to provide the kind of services that the people of Sonoma County expect and deserve."
On the issue of the Sonoma- Marin Area Rail Transit system, Smith said he initially supported the train, but said Zane and her colleagues showed a "tin ear" when it comes to the public's views on government spending.