Some of Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom's progressive supporters are dismayed that she voted for Scott Bartley instead of Gary Wysocky for mayor of Santa Rosa. This reaction is understandable but also symptomatic of a destructive political culture that must be overcome.
Public officials have never had tougher jobs. Pressures to make good decisions on budgets, pensions, preserving services, maintaining parks and infrastructure, and protecting children and the vulnerable are unrelenting. What our officials do will determine whether our communities thrive or begin to die. (This is not hyperbole. Unfunded pension liabilities alone will, absent far-reaching action, ultimately bankrupt every jurisdiction in the county.)
But it is unclear if local officials will succeed. An unreasoning, ever intensifying, partisan, us-vs.-them environment dominates campaigns, hamstrings governance and has so politicized some local governments that minor disagreements explode into personal affronts, and even productive compromises are considered weak and unprincipled.
Instead of asking, "What is the best decision?" or "What are the facts?" too often the question becomes, "How do I prevail? How do I keep X marginalized? How do I make sure group A supports me?" Or worse: "What does my consultant think?" (Of course there are many officeholders who rise above this. But too many do not.)
<NO1>In this environment, well-meaning officeholders lose focus, gravitate away from the hard work of reading, listening, reflecting, analyzing —<NO><NO1>in favor of reacting, opposing, disputing, following. <NO><NO1>None of us has a divine pipeline to the truth. Each of us can learn from others.<NO> When we view a colleague as an opponent to be overcome, instead of as a peer to learn from or to persuade, we block our capacity to grow and to be effective. We invite the continual revisiting of issues that can never be truly resolved by narrow shifting majorities.
So this is what makes what Carlstrom did important. She is a progressive. She disagrees with Bartley on some important issues. Yet she took the initiative to inject generosity of spirit and trust into a City Council that cannot be effective without it. She trusts Bartley to be fair, inclusive and open to all viewpoints. I know she is right. But one symbolic action is not enough. To build on Carlstrom's example, three City Council steps seem essential:
<BL@199,12,11,10>First, let Councilman Gary Wysocky be productive. He can be abrasive, yes, but he grasps the numbers and their implications better than any council member. Wysocky should chair a working group to produce a long-term budget/services/pension strategy. This needs to be done, and Wysocky is the councilman who can help do it. Equally important, if Bartley appoints Wysocky to do something like this, it, too, would be an act of trust and generosity.
<BL@199,12,11,10>Second, avoid a bitter, split-vote all-hands-on-deck fight over appointing a "moderate" or "progressive" to be Councilwoman Susan Gorin's replacement. Instead, reach out to appoint someone relatively unpolitical, with knowledge of issues, experience with numbers and a grasp of how City Hall works — someone who will come into office willing and able to do the work immediately.
<BL@199,12,11,10>Third, council members need to work harder to communicate with one another and to encourage their supporters to reach out to the <NO1>so-called <NO>other side. The Brown Act must be followed scrupulously. But so-called progressives and moderates, officeholders and not, need to spend more time together, structured or informally, one-on-one or in small groups or larger venues, talking, listening and learning. Sustainable decisions almost always involve compromises patiently constructed among people who disagree but have learned to trust and respect one another's good will.
In the end, this is about leadership. To her credit, Carlstrom has exhibited awareness and courage. What she, Bartley, Wysocky and the other council members now do <NO1>over coming months <NO>will determine whether what she did was a forlorn gesture — or the beginning of rejuvenation.