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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.

“I have reflected on the conversations I have had and the letters I have received, and I understand now that my initial response to this was inappropriate,” Gold wrote in the June 6 post. “Systemic racism can take many forms. As a white woman of privilege, I don’t experience that racism, and need to be mindful that it gives me blind spots.”

Other council members voiced their regret Monday.

“I would just like to apologize for a week ago not recognizing the urgency of the issue that was brought before us,” Councilman David Hagele said at the meeting. “That was tone deaf on my part, and, to our neighbors that felt marginalized or dismissed, I’m sorry. I think I can speak for all of our council members that it has been quite the learning experience.”

During Monday’s discussion with Police Chief Kevin Burke — scheduled after the council reversed itself and invited him to appear — council members said they were committed to listening to the experiences of minority residents to understand and address underlying bias in the city.

Burke shared statistics showing limited complaints and only 65 use-of-force incidents during the past six years, with no shootings or deaths.

The chief suggested hiring a bilingual, licensed clinical social worker to fill one of the vacancies in his 18-officer department and pairing the position with a sworn officer to give greater attention to racial and socioeconomic equity. Council members endorsed the plan and will see a formal proposal return for a vote.

Several residents who spoke at the meeting said Gold had been dismissive and even arrogant in response to issues of systemic racism in the predominantly white city of about 12,000 people. Roughly a third of Healdsburg residents are Latino, with a small share of Asian-American, Black and Native American residents.

“Just being a person of color and hearing what our mayor, Leah Gold, had to say — or not say — about the situation was completely distressing to me,” resident Skylaer Palacios told the council. “To just use your white privilege to look (past) the situation is disgusting to me.”

“(You) showed no willingness to learn, be curious or to understand my lived-in experience as a queer, Latinx community leader and business owner here on the Healdsburg Plaza,” Ozzy Jimenez, chief executive officer of Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar, added of a phone call he had with Gold. “I will also remind you all that the public perception of our community right now is not good, and it is bad for business.”

Gold, a 28-year resident and retired founder of an online tutoring company, said the public backlash represented only a small group of people with a personal score to settle, and that she had also received many letters of support for her to remain in office.

She dismissed claims that the controversy had marred Healdsburg in the eyes of outsiders.

“I don’t agree that this has hurt Healdsburg as a tourist destination. The whole country is in turmoil, not just Healdsburg,” she said.

Gold’s resignation caught fellow council members by surprise. All had backed her remaining in office, with more than two years left in her term.

“I have a mix of emotions. There’s part of me that’s relieved, part of me that’s sad, part of me that’s disappointed,” Naujokas said Tuesday. “It’s sad that we’ve come to this. I’m disappointed in the initial council reaction that led to all of this, and the response that Leah has (given) to constituent concerns. I’m relieved because she has really become this touchpoint of emotion and anger for better or for worse in the community. I know there’s a lot of tension with her and the Latinx community, and this is certainly one way to relieve that tension.”

Gold is in her second council term and second stint as its rotating mayor. She was first elected in 2000 and served as mayor in 2003. She ran again in 2017 for an 18-month seat on the council before winning another full term in 2018.

It was not immediately clear who would take over the role of mayor. The council is not obligated to elevate its vice mayor, Evelyn Mitchell, who has been in office for a year and a half.

The City Council also has some latitude to fill Gold’s seat. They could choose to do so by appointment or in the general election in November, which Gold said contributed to the timing of her departure - before the July 12 deadline for the council to place the vacated two-year term on the ballot if it chooses.

“I hope that is a change that I can be part of. I hope with the momentum right now that someone who is Latinx, Black, indigenous or another person of color steps forward to run in November,” Gold said. “I support the Black Lives Matter movement and understand people of color face discrimination and bias every day, in small ways and in large ways, and this is something we need to address as a culture and as country, and I fully support advancing racial equity in Healdsburg and in our country.”

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

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