Healdsburg mayor to resign over handling of police reform, racism issues
Healdsburg Mayor Leah Gold is stepping down from the City Council under mounting public pressure over her handling of racial tensions in the city and calls for reform by the local Black Lives Matter movement and its allies.
The sudden move marks the first known resignation in Sonoma County of an elected or top official amid the national push to address racial discrimination and end police brutality.
Gold’s surprise announcement Tuesday morning came just hours after the conclusion of the City Council’s first meeting since she and the majority of her colleagues declined two weeks ago to have a formal discussion about police use-of-force policies.
Gold, in that June 1 virtual meeting, dismissed the need for such a conversation, unleashing a torrent of calls for her resignation, including an online petition that had reached more than 1,800 signatures Tuesday. Even this week, she had sidestepped those demands, saying she did not know how to respond.
But on Monday, before the council meeting, Gold, 64, said she informed top city officials, including the city manager and attorney, of her intent to step down. She then said nothing about that decision at the meeting, even in the face of additional calls by residents for her resign.
The letter addressed Tuesday morning to her council colleagues was their first notice she was leaving, her resignation effective June 30.
“I feel, considering the council has some major work ahead to respond to the community and work on these issues of racial equity, that I seem to be a target, and they may be more effective if I’m out of the picture,” Gold said in an interview Tuesday.
She was steadfast that the controversy erupted partly because her comments had been repeatedly taken out of context. But she also acknowledged in the letter that her initial stance on concerns raised by residents had fallen short. Stepping down, she said, could grant a chance for a person of color to assume her seat on the all-white council.
“I’m pretty stubborn, and my intention was to follow through with my term, but basically at what personal price?” she said. “I don’t really need this in my life, with people making up stories. I don’t need this, and can have a more pleasant life without it.”
Healdsburg resident Elena Halvorsen, whose public criticism of Gold launched the effort to force her out, voiced shock that the mayor had stepped down. She said it was the best move, given the circumstances, for the city.
“Even last night, when people were talking and sharing stories, she was shaking her head and mouthing ‘I didn’t say that,’ which, for me, confirmed that she’s spent so much time defending herself that she’s not listening,” said Halvorsen, a local photographer. “I’m learning in this journey, too. I’m just trying to do the right thing, after having lots of years seeing stuff in the community that I just want it to be better.”
Gold joins a growing number of civic, business and law enforcement leaders nationwide who have stepped down or been ousted amid a historic push to address inequities and injustice rooted in race. While demonstrators have rallied in the streets, mayors, police chiefs, business and media executives have tendered their resignations.
Gold first drew the ire of some residents and activists when she and three other council members rejected Councilman Joe Naujokas’ June 1 request to schedule a future discussion on how Healdsburg police officers employ force in the line of duty.
“To me, it’s a solution looking for a problem. I don’t see that that’s a place I particularly want to put our time and energy,” Gold said at the meeting.
That stance and other council comments sparked a social media firestorm, one fueled by comments Gold later made discouraging attendance at a June 4 protest to support the Black Lives Matter movement in the downtown plaza out of concern for public safety and property.
That rally went forward peacefully, followed by a second demonstration last Thursday in which Gold was encircled by a crowd of protesters criticizing her comments and actions and calling for urgent changes in city spending on social programs, low-income housing and food insecurity.
“For so long, there’s been this debate that this doesn’t happen, there’s no racism in Healdsburg,” said Lupe Lopez, 22, who helped organize an art installation at the June 11 protest. “I just hope this doesn’t die down. ... It’s important that it gets to the City Council and helps create change.”
Fellow council members, all of whom also attended the second demonstration, have since apologized for their initial response, but Gold has stopped short, identifying “blind spots” in a post on her personal Facebook page, as well as “missteps” in interviews related to initially discouraging people from protesting in Healdsburg.