Challenger shaking up Sebastopol council race
Two short years ago, the campaign for Sebastopol City Council boiled down to three letters: CVS.
The race this year is somehow both simpler and more complex.
In the absence of a central, polarizing issue such as the unpopular CVS drug store plan that helped reshape the council in 2012, three incumbents defending their posts against a single challenger say they want to stay the course toward economic revitalization, community vibrancy and environmental sustainability.
Vice Mayor Patrick Slayter and council members Una Glass and Sarah Glade Gurney have the support of one another in their re-election bids, as well as the endorsements of Mayor Robert Jacob and Councilman John Eder.
They cite, if not consistent unanimity, a common commitment to progressive ideals, collaborative decision-making and past success maintaining relative financial stability through a universally trying economic time.
“During the last couple years of budget hearings, it’s been an overwhelming response from the community that, ‘Yes, we appreciate prudent financial planning,’ ” said Slayter, an architect and former planning commissioner finishing up his first council term.
But community activist Jonathan Greenberg hopes to win a seat for himself - specifically Slayter’s - and has cast the entire council in a dim light, saying he wants to bring transparency and oversight to a body he believes lacks independence.
He also has come out against a council-supported utility tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, in part because of campaign literature that greatly overstates the share of general fund revenue the existing tax provides.
Former City Councilman and Mayor Craig Litwin, who is consulting on the Measure R campaign, acknowledged that fliers promoting the tax initially included an inaccurate percentage - 15 percent - which was furnished by a staff report presented to the City Council last July. The existing utility tax actually provides about 6 percent of the city’s general fund revenue, while the new one, if approved by voters, would contribute about 10.8 percent of the general fund.
Greenberg said the issue driving his campaign, however, is his interest in reopening the emergency room at now-shuttered Palm Drive Hospital, a facility owned and formerly operated by an independent, elected health care district. Greenberg says he believes the council has a role in the debate, whereas council members do not.
“If I get elected to the City Council, I think I’m going to empower that body,” Greenberg said.
With many progressives backing the incumbents - including Slayter, a liberal who on this council is deemed somewhat conservative - it’s unclear how much traction Greenberg can get with the election just 9 days away. But his critiques have come amid complaints that he is prone to creative interpretation of facts and figures, as well as claiming credit some say more properly resides with others.
The mayor, saying he felt an obligation to speak despite some reluctance, recently called out what he said were “misleading” assertions about city spending and the hospital issue presented as “fact when they are not fact.”
“I think,” said Gurney, a 10-year council member, “it’s important to elect people whose values you trust, because their values are going to drive the decision-making, and I think it’s important to pick people who intend to work well together. I can say this as an attorney: You wouldn’t have a law partnership and put people together on purpose who were opposed to each other and intended to be dysfunctional and frustrate each other.”
Greenberg, a self-proclaimed public-interest advocate with a history in journalism, has taken a prominent role in a series of public policy debates. He was behind a proposed city ban on leaf blowers, came out strongly against CVS, worked actively to get a countywide sales tax to fund libraries on the November ballot and advocates persistently for reopening the Palm Drive emergency room.
He says he targeted Slayter in large part because of the latter’s role in pivotal votes that permitted CVS developers to proceed with plans for the downtown store without a full environmental impact report - an outcome that resulted from what Greenberg claims was a faulty traffic report that was later challenged in court.
But while he expresses support for the Glass and Gurney candidacies, his campaign is largely critical of the entire council, lambasting what he calls excessive deference to unelected city staff of the sort that he says resulted in the CVS debacle, as well as the council’s failure to intervene in discussions about reopening the hospital.