Voters in Sonoma County’s 5th District, which stretches from Roseland to Bodega Bay and includes all coastal areas, have a choice on June 7. And it’s not just about picking which of five candidates to succeed Efren Carrillo as “mayor” of west county. The choice is whether to help the county move forward or take a step back. It’s that simple.
Among the candidates, Lynda Hopkins presents the best opportunity to move past the acrimonious political battles of yesteryear toward new and creative ways of addressing the prevailing needs of today. These needs include creating affordable housing, fixing roads, adapting to a changing climate and providing sound fiscal management for a county with a $1.5 billion budget and lingering — and potentially staggering — pension problems.
An organic farmer, the Stanford-educated Hopkins, 32, emerged on the political scene with her sensible, middle-ground recommendations for resolving conflicts over plans by the Lytton Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians to build up to 360 homes, as well as a hotel resort and a 200,000-case winery, on properties west of Windsor. Although lacking in experience in elected office, Hopkins has proven to be a quick study on county issues and has demonstrated innovative thinking with ideas such as creating community improvement districts in Bodega Bay and along the Russian River as a way to ensure these residential pockets directly benefit from tourist dollars spent there. She’s suggested using Open Space District land already paid for with taxpayer funds to help mitigate requirements for tiger salamander habitat to encourage needed projects such as affordable housing. She also seeks a no-nonsense approach to dealing with the county’s pension problems including providing greater transparency on unfunded liabilities and promising action and extended oversight on the recommendations of the citizens’ pension advisory committee, which are due to be released July 12. “The more I learn (about unfunded liabilities), the more depressed I become,” said Hopkins. “What is it going to look like in the next recession?” These are the right questions to ask.
By contrast, these are not the questions that voters can expect from Noreen Evans, 60, who has a strong pro-public employee union voting record and, by virtue of her experience in the state Legislature, is the presumptive favorite in this race. She is unapologetic about her part in boosting pension benefits while serving on the Santa Rosa City Council, which involved the kind of retroactive 50 percent increase in retirement benefits that now saddles local governments with massive unfunded liabilities making it harder to meet basic needs such as repairing streets and caring for parks. Her track record in the Legislature in this area was no less disappointing. In 2005, as the folly of these enhanced benefits was becoming evident, Evans authored legislation that would have raised the cap on pensions for firefighters and police from 90 percent to 100 percent of salaries. At the time, the pension costs in Sebastopol, where Evans now makes her home, had soared from less than $100,000 a year to roughly $750,000 in five years. And when local governments were drowning in pension-related costs in 2012, she threw them an anchor instead of a life raft, supporting AB 1692, which hindered the ability of governments to find relief in bankruptcy court.
We have praised Evans for her work in a number of areas ranging from protecting state parks from closure to banning the kind of imitation toy firearms that was involved in the shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez. But given her track record, voters should have little confidence that she will put their interests ahead of those of public employee unions.