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Campaign to recall Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch qualifies for the ballot

A campaign launched and bankrolled by Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher to recall District Attorney Jill Ravitch has enough verified signatures to qualify for the ballot, touching off what is likely to be a bruising political battle in the months to come.

It will pit the county’s three-term DA, who has said she is not running for reelection next year, against a wealthy developer she investigated and prosecuted over his company’s actions during the 2017 Tubbs fire, when dozens of elderly and infirm residents in two Santa Rosa care homes were abandoned as the flames bore down.

Gallaher and his daughter have already spent about $2.6 million combined in the past two years to influence county politics, according to campaign finance records. That includes the nearly $800,000 Gallaher has so far contributed as the lone donor to the recall effort, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

Recall proponents gathered more than the required 30,056 valid signatures, said Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Deva Proto. An election could come as soon as mid-September, she said.

If the signature gathering effort is any indication, Gallaher is likely to mount a fierce and well funded campaign. His public assertion since the recall effort began in October 2020 — a week after Ravitch announced she would retire when her current term ends in 2022 — is that Ravitch is unfit for elected office.

“We launched the recall campaign against Jill Ravitch because it is critical that we have steady, competent leadership overseeing public safety in our county,” Gallaher said in a statement on Wednesday. A spokesperson with the Recall Ravitch campaign did not respond to voicemails requesting comment or an interview with Gallaher.

The campaign has cited a range of complaints Gallaher and others have made about Ravitch’s tenure and decisions as the county’s top prosecutor.

“Pressing issues of inequality, injustice and fire safety failures have been ignored or inflamed by Ravitch,” the campaign said on its signature gathering petition.

The recall proponents on Wednesday signaled that they would also seek to impugn Ravitch’s record on sexual assault and domestic violence investigations.

Ravitch called those suggestions unfounded.

She said she was prepared for a smear campaign full of “lies and half truths” as the special election comes closer.

“At the end of the day this recall attempt is about one simple fact,” she said in an interview. “Bill Gallaher is mad we held his business accountable.”

The pro-Ravitch campaign accused the recall signature gatherers of spreading “outright lies” about Ravitch’s political platform and record as a prosecutor. That campaign, called Voters Opposed to Recalling DA Jill Ravitch, also said in a statement that Gallaher’s money supported $10 payments for each signature gathered — an “extraordinarily high bounty.”

Gallaher contributed $295,000 to the recall campaign in 2020 and has donated $496,000 so far this year, campaign finance records show. The money went to paid signature gatherers and other campaign operations.

It represents the latest bid by Gallaher or one of his family members to muscle their way into the center of Sonoma County politics through extraordinary campaign spending.

In a March 2020 election, Gallaher’s daughter, Molly Gallaher Flater, chief operating officer of Windsor-based Gallaher Companies, donated $1.8 million to the opposition campaign against an early tax extension for SMART, the North Bay’s passenger rail system. The tax came up short, and combined spending by the two rival campaigns amounted to more than $3 million, making for the most expensive Sonoma County political race on record.

A countywide special recall election will not be cheap for taxpayers either. The estimated cost is between $600,000 and more than $909,000, according to Proto.

Her office would recommend a Sept. 14 election date, she said, although choosing the date will fall to the Board of Supervisors. The board has 14 days to set an election once they receive the certified petition, which will occur at the May 18 board meeting.

Election officials rejected 11,188 signatures and approved 32,128. The majority of the rejected signatures — 4,955 — were tossed because they did not belong to registered voters. Another 2,857 signatures belonged to voters registered at a different address than the one they gave.

Gallaher has been the sole contributor to the campaign, according to an April 23 campaign finance filing. Ravitch has said Gallaher’s spending breaks campaign finance laws and has asked the California Attorney General’s Office to intervene.

On Wednesday, she directed The Press Democrat to the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office for an update on the outcome of that complaint. County Counsel Robert Pittman did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

Ravitch and her supporters say the recall is Gallaher’s bid for vengeance in the political arena.

Oakmont Senior Living, Gallaher’s Windsor-based development company, and two affiliated companies that own or operate two Fountaingrove care homes, Oakmont of Varenna and Villa Capri, were accused by prosecutors of abandoning about 100 residents with no means to evacuate themselves during the Tubbs fire in 2017.

The civil complaint also accused the companies of failing to prepare staff to evacuate residents during emergencies and not notifying relatives about the status of their loved ones during the fires.

The recall campaign began less than two months after one of the Oakmont Senior Living affiliates paid $500,000 to settle the county case.

“This recall effort has no legitimate purpose,” Terry Price, chair of the pro-Ravitch campaign, said in a press statement Wednesday.

“In my opinion, it is one man’s revenge against a DA who did her job: holding his company accountable for violations which endangered people’s lives,” Price said.

Gallaher’s firm in 2018 also reached a separate settlement with the state over similar allegations stemming from an investigation of actions by managers and staff at Varenna and Villa Capri amid the firestorm. Oakmont Senior Living officials admitted staff members at the two care homes abandoned elderly and infirm residents as the flames closed in on the pair of facilities, leaving relatives and emergency responders to rush in and evacuate those left behind.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or andrew.graham@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88.

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