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Latina councilwoman selected as Cloverdale vice mayor in historic vote

The Cloverdale City Council appointed the city’s first Latina councilwoman as vice mayor on Wednesday, elevating her to a leadership position on the council during what’s been a groundbreaking year for women of color in local and national politics.

Marta Cruz, a first-term councilwoman elected in 2018 who garnered more votes than any other candidate that year, will serve a one-year term as vice mayor.

She and newly appointed Mayor Jason Turner, the city’s former vice mayor, will steer the council.

Several local Latino leaders, including Cruz, said the historic appointment nearly didn’t happen and expressed concerns that racial and gender bias may have played a role in the selection process.

Cruz said she was approached by multiple people in the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote who said they heard two other people with prior leadership experience on the council had been preselected to receive nominations for the mayor and vice mayor seats, effectively sidelining her.

She felt she was overlooked to serve as a leader on the council in 2019 despite a mountain of accomplishments locally and regionally during her first year in office, she added.

Her work includes partnering with local groups, such as the Redwood Empire Food Bank and Cloverdale’s senior center, to provide meals to those in need and working with the Cloverdale Regional Library to bring books to underserved neighborhoods.

More recently Cruz worked with the county’s public health officials to bring a pop-up COVID-19 testing site to the city, she said.

Traditionally, each person on the council is given an opportunity to serve in some leadership capacity as either vice mayor or mayor in their first four-year term, Cruz said.

“I would say that bias had an impact on the nomination,” Cruz said on Thursday. “Why not trust a Latina that is qualified, that is experienced, that has a proven commitment and passion for work to lead the city?”

Outgoing Mayor Gus Wolter shot down claims that he had already selected who would serve as the city’s next leaders during Wednesday’s virtual City Council meeting, saying he may have suggested the vice mayor is traditionally propelled to the role of mayor but nothing more.

After hearing from more than 20 people who expressed support for Cruz to help spearhead the council — making up the majority of the public speakers on the item — Wolter nominated Turner for mayor and councilwoman Melanie Bagby, who served as the city’s mayor in 2019, for the vice mayor position.

“I’m not so sure that the other council members had the opportunity to ask people to come forward and give them their support,” Wolter said before voicing his nominations. “Like I said earlier, this is not a popularity contest for me, it’s about who is most qualified.”

Bagby, who threw her support for Cruz to serve as vice mayor, declined Wolter’s nomination, leading Wolter to nominate Cruz for the position instead along with Turner for mayor.

Each council member, except for Turner, who abstained, voted in favor of Wolter’s revised nomination.

“If Marta had not been elected, in all likelihood we would have been sued and forced to go into district elections,” Bagby said during the meeting. “We owe her a debt of gratitude for stepping up and representing Cloverdale so that didn’t happen.”

Neither Wolter nor Bagby responded to emails seeking comment about Wednesday’s meeting by Thursday evening, nor could they be reached by phone.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Cruz told Wolter she had not asked any of Wednesday’s speakers to join the meeting, a message she reiterated during an interview Thursday afternoon.

“I was offended because it wasn’t about popularity, it was about leadership,” Cruz said. “This was about a leader who has earned not only a place at the table but a voice.”

Herman J. Hernandez, president of the Sonoma County Latino leadership organization Los Cien, took part in Wednesday’s meeting and was one of the nearly two dozen people who spoke of Cruz’s contributions to the city and who said they wanted to see her appointed to a leadership role.

He emailed Bagby before the meeting after hearing “through the grapevine” that Wolter planned to nominate Turner and Bagby, Hernandez said.

He and Cruz met when she was running for office and he’s witnessed her efforts to help the farmworker and Latino community in Cloverdale since then, he said.

“What we have to do is do this more often until it becomes a standard, an equitable standard,” Hernandez said of the support shown for Cruz on Wednesday. “And not think, ’We’ll maybe that person is not ready.’ Were they ready to be vice mayor? Who mentored them?”

Cruz expressed special gratitude for Bagby, one of the people who encouraged her to seek a seat on the City Council, and her decision to decline Wolter’s initial nomination. Cruz hoped to see more cohesion and collaboration within the council moving forward, she said.

“Whatever differences are there, we need to iron them out because we have a job to do and we have to do that in collaboration,” Cruz said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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