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Santa Rosa seeks seat on SMART board

Santa Rosa is seeking a seat on the board of SMART, the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency, arguing that the largest city along the rail line and home to two future train stations deserves a direct say in decisions about the $660 million project.

There hasn’t been a City Council member on the 12-member SMART board of directors for a decade, since Mike Martini stepped down in 2005. Now with passenger rail service right around the bend, Santa Rosa officials think it’s high time the city recovered its rightful seat.

“It seems proper and reasonable that Santa Rosa has a seat at the table,” Mayor John Sawyer said. “I hope that others in the county understand that.”

The city represents both a large share of the expected ridership and of the sales taxes funding the project, Sawyer said. It also has a role in ensuring that properties around the Railroad Square station - including one owned by SMART - are developed properly, he said.

But the city’s effort may be derailed by smaller cities who say Santa Rosa’s interests are already well represented by 3rd District Supervisor Shirlee Zane, and that it’s not a good idea to replace an experienced board member at such a crucial phase of the project.

“I have, for the last six years, studied this as if I had gone back to college,” said Cloverdale Councilwoman Carol Russell, who has been a SMART director since 2009 and whose term is up. “I eat, sleep and breathe SMART. It is a tremendous learning curve.”

Russell is one of two directors selected from the ranks of Sonoma County cities, the other being Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie. Both their terms are up next month, and both have asked the Sonoma County Mayors’ and Councilmembers’ Association to reappoint them when they meet next month.

But Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, who has represented the city on the Sonoma County Transportation Authority board since shortly after her election to the council in 2012, also has asked to be considered for one of the two open seats.

Her request raises a potentially touchy question of whether Santa Rosa, by virtue of its size and crucial role in the success of the rail project, should be allowed to replace a smaller community like Rohnert Park or, more likely, Cloverdale, a city unlikely to be served by the line for years.

Mackenzie, who was involved in SMART’s formation and represents Sonoma County on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, is considered a lock for reappointment.

That means to get on the board, Carlstrom effectively needs to bump Russell from her seat. To do that, she’ll need to make the case to the council members of the county’s eight other cities that she - and Santa Rosa by extension - deserves Russell’s seat.

The councils of each city are expected to vote on the selection over the coming weeks, with the mayors making the final vote when the board of directors of the Sonoma County Mayors’ and Councilmembers’ Association meets in Petaluma on Feb. 12.

In her letter asking for support, Carlstrom points to her service on SCTA and says she has “strong respect” for the work of existing board members.

“As the largest city along the SMART line, and a city with two stations planned, Santa Rosa has been largely excluded from the governance, planning and implementation of the SMART line,” Carlstrom’s letter reads.

She also cites the need to develop SMART’s Railroad Square property and integrate the two rail stations - the other one will be near Coddingtown - into the city’s bus networks as reasons why “it is an important time for Santa Rosa’s 170,000 constituents to be directly represented on the SMART board.”

Carlstrom was out of town and did not respond to several email and voicemail messages.

Some predict it will be challenging for Carlstrom to whip up the votes to win the seat. The 31-year-old attorney and first-term councilwoman campaigned on a platform of restoring a spirit of collaboration to the council, but alienated some of her early supporters in the process. She announced plans to seek higher office 10 months after her election. She ran for the 10th Assembly District last year, coming in a distant third in the June primary. She was surprised and disappointed when her council colleagues passed her over for mayor in December in favor of Sawyer, who was viewed as more of a consensus builder.

Russell said it would be a bad idea to start naming new directors to the board based on the interests of individual communities. SMART directors work well together now and need to take the entire ?70-mile line from Larkspur to Cloverdale into account in their decisions, she said.

The 43-mile first phase, currently under construction between Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa and downtown San Rafael, is expected to be operational by the end of 2016.

Zane echoed Russell’s sentiment this week.

“This is a regional board. This is not about us staring at our own territorial belly buttons,” she said. “It’s about us building a half-a-billion-dollar regional infrastructure project.”

Santa Rosa has been an excellent partner with SMART, but for various reasons is “behind the eight-ball” when it comes to getting development underway around the Railroad Square station, Zane said. SMART officials expect to make a new push to develop their 5.5-acre property soon, she said.

“We’re going to try to move forward quickly so we can try to get something built - or at least in the process - by the time the train is running,” Zane said.

Despite a decade of discussions about building housing, retail and even a food and wine center on parcels just west of the new Railroad Square, the properties remain vacant industrial lots.

John Stewart, the developer whose various efforts to develop the 2.1-acre former cannery site stalled after the recession, said he’s “delighted” SMART is reviving plans to build on its adjacent property.

He said that historically, it has been profoundly difficult to coordinate development efforts with the rail agency. If Santa Rosa had a person knowledgeable about real estate development on the board it could only help, he said.

“Santa Rosa is the biggest station on the line. Of course they should have representation on the board,” he said.

Mackenzie, who said he supports Russell’s retaining her seat, said he can see how the fifth-largest city in the Bay Area representing one-third of the population of Sonoma County might feel it deserves a seat on the board. But he noted that Windsor Town Councilwoman Deb Fudge’s term as the at-large board member is up next year.

“Patience, Santa Rosa,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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