Forum for Sonoma County 2nd District supervisor candidates covers drought, transit, homelessness

Blake Hooper, a Petaluma Planning Commissioner, and Kevin Hayenga, a freelance video editor and Uber driver, are challenging David Rabbitt, the incumbent, who is seeking fourth term as supervisor.|

Transit, housing and the drought dominated the discussion Monday night as the three candidates running for the post of Sonoma County’s 2nd District supervisor sounded off during a candidates’ forum.

Blake Hooper, a Petaluma planning commissioner, and Kevin Hayenga, a freelance video editor and Uber driver, are challenging incumbent Supervisor David Rabbitt, who is seeking a fourth term.

The race has grown heated in recent weeks, particularly between Hooper and Rabbitt. Hooper paints Rabbitt as inaccessible to his constituents and local city officials, while Rabbitt contends Hooper lacks leadership experience and know-how.

During Monday’s debate, co-hosted by the Petaluma Argus-Courier and Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce, the contention continued.

Argus-Courier Editor Tyler Silvy moderated the forum which put the candidates through their paces on issues ranging from pandemic recovery and homelessness, to the drought and transit.

Discussion about the county’s pandemic recovery efforts opened the forum as candidates were asked to reflect on the county’s COVID-19 response.

Climate change was a repeated subject of debate as the candidates discussed groundwater, fire resiliency and water needs.

Despite the slight encouragement offered by April’s rain totals, Sonoma County is facing its third year of drought. The region’s two reservoirs, Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, are historically low and rampant wildfire is increasingly a year-round concern.

Hayenga called for the county to invest more in “large -scale” solar projects, support more electric vehicles, increase fire resiliency in unincorporated areas and study other potential water sources including desalination. He noted that desalination has its share of problems including cost, energy and taste, but believes its still a viable option which the county should explore.

“We need to conserve where we can, convert our yards to low use, beef up water recycling programs and assess how much water we will need in the future,” Hayenga said.

Rabbitt, a member of the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority, described Sonoma County as a leader in initiatives such as the solar installation at Los Guilicos, and he highlighted his involvement in acquiring federal funds to support infrastructure for recycled water in three counties, as well as taking excess winter water from the Russian River to put into the aquifer for use during dry seasons.

“There is a lot of good work going on, a lot of challenges ahead, more work to do,” Rabbitt said. “Exactly why we need to have someone in the office who understands the full, big picture of what is happening and the opportunities that exist.“

Hooper said solutions lie in updating the county’s general plan to include a climate mitigation plan that works in conjunction with cities’ efforts throughout the county.

Connecting the urgency of climate change to other challenges facing the county such as housing and transportation, Hooper added that the county will have to “get serious about regional transportation that actually connects well, and high density housing that focuses on transit corridors.”

Transit and housing have been hot button issues for the candidates in light of the increasing costs of housing and the faltering expansion of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, the local rail system.

Throughout the forum Hooper called for the county to establish the SMART train as a “backbone” of the county’s transit systems.

Asked if he saw a path forward for a second SMART station in Petaluma — an effort Rabbitt has committed himself to during his years on the board — Rabbitt said, he did.

He said, ideally, a second station would go at Corona Road and North McDowell Boulevard, the site where a joint housing and train station project failed last year due to deadlock in the Petaluma City Council.

Throughout the campaign, Rabbitt has stood by the project as an opportunity to address transportation and housing needs, a view he reiterated on Monday night.

“We could have that station today if the city of Petaluma would approve the Corona Station, coupled with the downtown station, going forward,” he said. “That was 26.5% total affordable housing that was denied that also would have delivered the SMART station over at Corona and McDowell.”

Hooper, who has supported Petaluma’s objection to the project, was quick to respond.

"Here we go again blaming the cities,“ Hopper said, adding that the joint project was problematic because it would have created segregated housing.

While Hooper and Rabbitt, spoke of the need to create housing within city boundaries, Hayenga said he’d push back on proposed housing projects, partly because of the impactfurther development could have on water use and local infrastructure.

“I understand we have a housing crisis, but we also have a water crisis and a infrastructure crisis and we also have a land-use crisis,” Hayenga said.

Rabbitt said there are ways to reduce water use in new projects. He believes the county can meet state requirements to increase housing density, and address water issues — “if you continue to make the investments the county has been making.”

As the conversation turned to the homeless population, Hooper said he supported the county’s use of pandemic funds to create housing with tiny homes and repurposed hotels, so long as the funding lasts. He added that the county needs to pursue other funding opportunities and work with cities as partners.

Hooper has made strengthening city partnerships a core part of his campaign. And he often refers to the support he has received from city elected officials as evidence that the county — under Rabbitt’s leadership — has not done its best in this area.

“The politics involved here is just really interesting, the county has been nothing but supportive to our cities in following these paths,” Rabbitt said, responding to Hooper’s criticism.

The night’s forum ended on the mounting conflict between rural residents and outdoor cannabis cultivators.

“I am for the cannabis industry,” Hayenga said. “I’ll admit I’m a cannabis user and I use just the right amount.”

He added that he believes there are places in the county where neighbors are more open to cannabis cultivation than others, and said he would listen to the residents.

Hooper, though, criticized the county for not conducting an environmental impact study years ago. He said the county needs to overhaul its permitting department, which has struggled to keep up with cannabis permit applications.

At closing statements, Hooper again stated that cities need a better partner.

“They want a board of supervisors who are ready to work with our cities to face challenges in the next decade and not dwell on the problems of 12 years ago,” Hooper said. “If you don’t have the support of your local elected (leaders) you’re in trouble.”

Rabbitt hit back, noting that the county created the Office of Equity, the Department of Emergency Management and the county’s law enforcement watchdog agency, during his time on the board.

"You don't achieve that without collaboration,“ he said.

Last to speak, Hayenga said he was the best option to "uproot" the county's institutionalized racism and added that his lack of political, elected experience does not mean he can't do the job.

Referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s previous career as an actor and comedian, Hayenga told voters "It's time to elect courage to the board, which is severely lacking."

Election Day is on June 7.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or On Twitter @MurphReports.

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