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Santa Rosa's new mayor is refusing to apologize for calling a neighborhood activist "clueless," but his critics say he's the one who needs to get a clue about being the leader of the North Coast's largest city.

During his first full meeting in the mayor's chair, Scott Bartley said he wouldn't apologize for his published comments about Jack Swearengen, the president of the Friends of SMART and the former head of the Northwest Santa Rosa Neighborhood Association.

"I have nothing to apologize for," Bartley said Tuesday.

But Jenny Bard, past president of the Santa Rosa Junior College Neighborhood Association, said she was shocked and disappointed to see Bartley publicly demean a neighborhood activist whom she described as thoughtful, and then refuse to apologize for it.

"He is now the mayor of our city and there's a huge responsibility to treat people with respect, particularly people with whom he disagrees," Bard said.

The flap began in response to a Tuesday article in The Press Democrat in which Bartley called Swearengen "clueless" for characterizing Bartley as someone who favors "auto-dependent development" over "pedestrian- and user-friendly development."

Bard sent an email to the City Council defending Swearengen, a retired engineering professor, asking Bartley to publicly apologize, and blasting him for his "continued condescending attitude and arrogance" toward those with whom he disagrees.

"How do you expect to build trust, or for the public to want to become engaged with the city, when you treat people with disdain?" Bard wrote.

New Councilwoman Julie Combs, who campaigned on a promise to listen to the views of neighborhoods, rose to Swearengen's defense at the council meeting Tuesday, calling him a friend.

"I have found him to be a kind and gentle man who volunteers his time tirelessly for the betterment of Santa Rosa," Combs said.

She then suggested the council discuss at some point reviewing its code of conduct regarding "how we refer to members of the public and other community leaders."

When it appeared that Bartley didn't intend to address the issue, Councilman Gary Wysocky asked the new mayor whether he intended to apologize. It was at that point Bartley said he had nothing to apologize for.

He said Wednesday that he "could have chosen a more appropriate term if I pondered the question more thoroughly," but that he wouldn't apologize for it.

"I'm only a human being, and sometimes in conversation you say something and you have to take it in the context as a whole," Bartley said. "I can't go through life defending every word I say. There are more important issues facing the city."

Bartley said he wasn't questioning Swearengen's intelligence. Swearengen has a Ph.D in engineering, retired as a professor from Washington State University and, before that, spent 26 years as an energy researcher and adviser on nuclear nonproliferation issues at a nuclear weapons design laboratory.

The context of the "clueless" comment was that Swearengen was criticizing him and misrepresenting his views on important issues, and he felt the need to respond, Bartley said.

"He was dismissing me, and that's why I said he's clueless," Bartley said.

He said he's amazed that people now claim to be disappointed because he "didn't just turn the other cheek and say 'Thank you,' " Bartley said.

The people really to blame for the stink are his council colleagues, Combs and Wysocky, who brought the issue up Tuesday unnecessarily, Bartley said.

"Basically, they were kind of calling me out at the meeting," Bartley said. "They waited for the opportunity in public to call me out, and that's inappropriate."

Bartley said he remains committed to changing the tone on the City Council, which has been plagued by polarization and infighting in recent years.

Newcomer Erin Carlstrom cited her trust in his ability to bring the council together when she cast the deciding vote elevating Bartley to mayor last week.

Whether the dustup sets back that effort remains to be seen.

Swearengen said he's amused by the affair and is heartened by the outpouring of support he's received from people who view Bartley's remarks and refusal to apologize as revealing.

"It's one thing to disagree with your approach to development; it's another thing to try to insult or dismiss or demean your opponents," Swearengen said. "I'm disappointed that our mayor doesn't see the difference or, if he does, doesn't think it matters."

He said he's not looking to escalate the issue and wants to just let it go.

"He needs to be mayor and I need to be quiet and try to live in his city," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter@citybeater.