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Healdsburg City Council appoints first Latino in nearly 3 decades to vacated seat

Businessman Ozzy Jimenez was appointed Tuesday to fill a vacant seat on the Healdsburg City Council, where he will be the first person of color in nearly three decades, taking the place of the city’s former mayor, who resigned last week amid outcry over the city’s handling of calls to address systemic racism and socioeconomic inequities.

The unanimous appointment of Jimenez, 33, represented a historic turn of events after five tumultuous weeks in Healdsburg set in motion by the Black Lives Matter movement and allies, and punctuated by the exit of Mayor Leah Gold.

Jimenez, the chief executive officer of Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, becomes just the third Latino council member in the city’s 153-year history, and the first person of color since 1992 to represent Healdsburg, where about 30% of residents identify as Hispanic.

He was selected by the four incumbents, all of whom are white, in voting right out of the gate after interviews with three other candidates, including a well-known former city planning commissioner.

In a separate 3-1 vote, the council chose to allot Jimenez the full 2½ years remaining on Gold’s term, an option that he publicly favored rather than putting the seat up for election in November, when three other council seats are already up for contention. Vice Mayor Shaun McCaffery was the lone dissenting vote on the length of the appointment.

The appointment came in a virtual special meeting after almost three hours of public comment, candidate interviews and discussion by council members about the weight of their choice.

Jimenez, who is of Mexican descent, also is believed to be just the second openly gay member of the City Council. Former Councilwoman Susan Jones was the first after being elected to one term in 2010 and serving as mayor in 2013.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity, and I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and get to work and be an advocate for people who look like me, and the rest of Healdsburg,” Jimenez said in an interview. “I understand that this was a difficult decision for everyone tonight. But I think what they also made in this decision was a signal to the community as a whole and the entire region that Healdsburg leans in and listens in, and makes the right decision when called to action.”

The four incumbents said the selection would help move the city in a positive direction following a tumultuous past month highlighted by the push from local Black Lives Matter activists for improved representation of people of color in city government.

“Just to maybe state the obvious, I think this is a moment for celebration. It brings tears to my eyes,” said Mayor Evelyn Mitchell, marking just her second meeting holding the gavel. “We have gotten through what has proven to be an incredibly difficult time, and really opened up our eyes to a lot of issues and things that we need to address, and this seems like a good start for that. I’m just sorry that it came this way, but nevertheless, we’ll move forward. I’m very proud of the people that I’m serving with.”

Gold, who was in the middle of her second term on the council, last month took fire from residents — including Jimenez — after declining to have a formal discussion about police use-of-force policies at the request of Councilman Joe Naujokas. None of the other three other council members supported the suggestion either, spurring a rapid rebuke from residents and activists that forced the Wine Country city of about 12,000, and Gold especially, into an unsparing national spotlight.

In just over a week’s time, an online campaign imploring her to resign gained steam and eventually garnered more than 1,800 signatures. Gold, a 28-year resident and retired founder of an online adult tutoring company, bowed to the pressure heaped on her by social media and heated exchanges with demonstrators during a city protest in the downtown plaza.

In a shock move in the middle of last month — just hours after the end of a police discussion over which she presided — she announced her resignation, effective last week.

Gold, while still jabbing at her detractors, said she hoped the decision would inspire a person of color to seek the seat in the upcoming election to better reflect Healdsburg’s diversity. Jimenez, who had voiced his interest in the seat and who was backed by a crowd of supporters, pushed for the full appointment.

Jimenez, who recently served as a state Democratic Party delegate, won the appointment over three other candidates: Rich Bottarini, a former Healdsburg planning commissioner; Alex Silverman, a sommelier previously with SingleThread Farm restaurant; and Skylaer Palacios, who was Miss Sonoma County in 2014 and identifies as a member of the Black, Latino and indigenous communities.

“While I appreciate the will of the voters, I also appreciate the circumstances of the moment. There’s tremendous variability of our future,” Naujokas said of Healdsburg’s many challenges, among them the pandemic, the resulting recession and a significant spate of leadership turnover at top posts in City Hall. “I think that our constituents and our global society is ready for a change, and is ready to seize this moment of opportunity and really make significant steps forward addressing this scourge of racism that we seem to never shake off.”

The newly appointed councilman said he would celebrate by sharing a bottle of Iron Horse Vineyards sparkling wine with his partner before diving into the City Council’s business. His first meeting on the council will come in August.

“I’m happy to try to be that voice for marginalized folks, working families and the Latinx population, and really want to make some change,” he said. “I feel proud of the moment. It was a moment of failed leadership, where one could have leaned into that conversation, and now we’re here five weeks later, and I’m happy to serve.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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