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Santa Rosa ends free parking downtown, but critics want police reform

Santa Rosa will once again begin charging drivers to park their cars downtown, a decision the City Council made Tuesday under criticism over its focus on parking meters and garages amid a wider national upheaval over police brutality.

The council lifted the temporary rule put in place in April allowing free parking downtown due to the coronavirus pandemic and approved proposals to make hourly parking cheaper. Those changes, which were recommended by the city’s parking staff, take effect ?July 1.

Santa Rosa’s parking rules regularly foment debate among local officials and the downtown business community, and the new rules prompted their fair share of germane input from the public. But there also were plenty of people who scanned the City Council’s agenda and found a glaring hole: the absence of any action related to reforming the Santa Rosa Police Department in the wake of nationwide demonstrations over the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We have to infiltrate a Zoom meeting where there is no acknowledgment on the agenda of the thousands of protesters going unheard in your city streets,” said a man who identified himself as Roman Campos.

Floyd’s death - and other police killings, especially those of Black men - have inspired protests in Santa Rosa and other cities across Sonoma County over the last three weeks, including a demonstration scheduled at 1 p.m. Saturday in Doyle Park. Campos called on the council members to attend Saturday’s demonstration to have an organic dialogue with protesters about reform. He derided the city’s strategy for community engagement and reform as overly distant from the populace.

“It’s really insulting when you have not been present with us for the past three weeks,” he said.

Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, a former police chief, earlier said he would attend the Doyle Park demonstration. He also said he was open to listening to community members and was “committed to action.”

“This is not just idle, ‘set up some committees,’?” Schwedhelm said. “We’re actually interested in change, and we’re really listening to what we have to hear.”

His pledge followed a stronger commitment from Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming, who is usually the most progressive member of the council. Fleming said she’d work to spread understanding that “no community in Sonoma County or beyond is immune from the fact that we never fully addressed Reconstruction and that we are still fighting the Civil War and that until we take this on with eyes wide open, we will continue to pay the price, and the debts continue to accrue, and the annual percentage rate on this is higher than we can afford.”

Tuesday’s meeting revealed a clear divide between city residents demanding action - including calls to defund the Santa Rosa Police Department - and city officials who have focused on a strategy called a “community empowerment plan.”

This plan includes the goal of “constructive and inclusive dialogue” with local Black and Latino community members and holding at least five “community workshops,” with feedback shaping the role of the city’s independent police auditor - a position the city has left vacant since late 2018.

More spirited comments from the public are sure to come next Tuesday, when the council is set to adopt a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Though more than 16,000 people have signed a petition to reduce police funding, the concept would need support from six of seven council members due to language included in a 2016 quarter-cent sales tax measure approved by city voters.

Later in the meeting, the council voted 4-3 on the parking package, with Fleming joining Councilmen Dick Dowd, Ernesto Olivares and John Sawyer in support of the staff recommendations. Schwedhelm and Councilmen Chris Rogers and Jack Tibbetts sided against them.

With most downtown businesses shuttered due to COVID-19, the City Council waived fees in April at downtown parking meters.

Parking revenue had already plunged 95% by early April, when free parking began, compared with levels from mid-March, when the shutdowns began.

When paid parking returns July 1, a new set of rules making it easier to park will also take effect. This includes a free first hour in city garages, free garage parking after 5 p.m. and on weekends, reducing the cost of some metered spots down to 75 cents per hour and offering a few dollars in free parking to first-time users of a smartphone parking app.

The council also waived meter reservation fees to allow businesses to set up seating in parking spaces and on sidewalks. This is in line with a previous decision to close Fourth Street between B and E streets from late June to mid-October.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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