John Sawyer picked as new Santa Rosa mayor

John Sawyer was named the new mayor of Santa Rosa by his City Council colleagues Tuesday night and Chris Coursey the new vice mayor, a surprise outcome that some said signaled the council is committed to a fresh start after years of caustic political strife.

Sawyer, a longtime downtown retailer who served on the council from 2004 to 2012, said he was honored and humbled that his colleagues would select him and he looked forward to a positive two-year term.

“We’ve got some hard work ahead of us,” said Sawyer, 59.

The vote was tight, however, with Sawyer winning by a 4-3 margin.

Sawyer, Coursey, Julie Combs and Gary Wysocky voted in favor of Sawyer for mayor, with Ernesto Olivares, Tom Schwedhelm and Erin Carlstrom voting against. Those three supported Carlstrom for mayor.

The votes were preceded by some extraordinary parliamentary maneuvering triggered by the fact that there was neither a mayor nor a vice mayor to run the meeting once the new council members were sworn in. Mayor Scott Bartley, Vice Mayor Robin Swinth and Councilman Jake Ours all decided not to run again.

Though largely a ceremonial post, the mayor serves a two-year term and is paid $1,200 per month, compared with $800 for other council members. The vice mayor serves a one-year term. The powers of the mayor include setting the council agenda and making appointments to various boards and commissions. The title also is viewed as an advantage to anyone running for re-election or higher office.

Without a mayor, questions arose about who should run the vote for the new mayor and how the voting should proceed. City Clerk Terri Griffin was selected to preside over the voting.

How she was to do so became somewhat controversial.

Combs and others said they didn’t want Griffin to be placed in the position of deciding whom to call on first to make a nomination. Council rules say nominations need to be taken in order, and some council members said it would be inappropriate to ask a staff member to decide whom to select first if it could potentially affect the outcome.

City Manager Sean McGlynn suggested the council members’ names be drawn from a hat, giving each the opportunity at random to nominate someone for mayor. The first name McGlynn selected from an oversized red-white-and-blue hat was Sawyer, who declined to name anyone. Next was Combs, who nominated Sawyer “in the spirit of reaching across the aisle and moving forward with the new council.”

Then, in the first sign that Carlstrom might not have the votes to be mayor herself, Schwedhelm, Coursey and Wysocky all passed on the opportunity to nominate anyone else. Ultimately, Olivares nominated Carlstrom, who had been viewed by many as having a good chance of winning.

But because Sawyer had been nominated first, he was voted on first, and he prevailed 4-3.

Schwedhelm and Coursey were then both nominated for vice mayor. Schwedhelm’s confirmation failed on a 3-4 vote, with Olivares, Schwedhelm and Carlstrom voting in favor and Sawyer, Coursey, Combs and Wysocky voting against. Coursey’s confirmation was unanimous.

Sawyer said after the meeting that he voted against Schwedhelm for vice mayor because Coursey was the top vote-getter in the election. Coursey received 21,047 votes to Sawyer’s 16,555 and Schwedhelm’s 16,291.

Sawyer said he felt it was important, especially given some of the remarks the council heard earlier during a presentation about the work of the open government task force, that the public feel that their voices are being heard by City Hall.

In addition, Sawyer called his support for Coursey an “olive branch” meant to demonstrate that he is willing to work with colleagues of different political stripes.

“My election as mayor was reaching across the aisle. His election as vice mayor was reaching across the aisle,” Sawyer said.

After the meeting, a visibly disappointed Carlstrom smiled widely when asked to comment on the election. “I’m sure he’ll do a great job,” she said.

Carlstrom, a 31-year-old attorney, is midway through her first council term. She alienated some of her more liberal supporters when she and Olivares co-endorsed each other shortly before the 2012 election, with some viewing the move as a betrayal.

She had also considered a run for a supervisorial seat and ran for two statewide offices in her first two years on the council, leading some to see her as ambitious and question her commitment to the city.

Before they stepped down earlier in the evening, Bartley and Swinth received standing ovations from a crowd in the packed council chambers.

Swinth, who was appointed to fill a council vacancy two years earlier, was lauded for her intelligence and work ethic.

Olivares said she had “kicked butt” and accomplished more in two years than most council members do in four. Sawyer praised her for having “the mind of an engineer and the heart of a lion.”

Ours, though not present, was also praised for his work on economic development issues.

And Bartley said he was pleased to see that projects he cared about, such as the reunification of Old Courthouse Square, were now on track after years of planning.

“I’m proud the city is a better place today than when I got elected,” he said.

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