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Sonoma County Alliance accepts president’s resignation amid reckoning on racial diversity

Sonoma County’s preeminent business group went into full damage control Monday, accepting the resignation of its president amid outcry over his public comments on race and protest while pledging to become a more diverse organization with greater emphasis on equality and inclusion in its advocacy and policymaking.

Top leaders of the Sonoma County Alliance, a powerhouse networking and advocacy coalition that includes political and community leaders, accepted in an emergency meeting the resignation of architect Doug Hilberman, its 46th president, whose letter to members and the public late last week set off a sharp reckoning in the group over its makeup and management.

One prominent Sonoma County Latino leader, Herman J. Hernandez, accused the organization of harboring deep-seated “white privilege and structural racism” in its top ranks, which include executives from the county’s banking, wine, development and health care sectors.

Hilberman’s letter, posted on the alliance website and social media before it was removed over the weekend, “only served to further divide our community and exposed his cultural incompetence and that of your organization,” Hernandez, founder of the leadership group Los Cien, wrote to the group’s executive director, Brian Ling.

On Sunday, Ling acknowledged that the alliance was losing members as a result of the controversy. Hernandez, a Guerneville real estate agent, on Monday added his name to that growing list, saying he would not renew his membership.

Ling announced in a Monday afternoon press release that the organization’s executive committee had accepted Hilberman’s resignation.

In the statement, he said the committee sought “to send a simple, clear and unequivocal message. We do not ‒ and will not ‒ tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind.”

The alliance board canceled Wednesday’s membership meeting and Ling said it would elect a new president who will direct efforts toward “the change that needs to happen ‒ achieving equality for all.”

The release gave no details of the committee’s meeting and Ling declined to be interviewed.

The alliance’s website lists Hilberman, past president Eric Goldschlag, vice president Judy James and secretary-treasurer Karissa Kruse as executive officers.

Hilberman, president of a Santa Rosa architectural firm, submitted his resignation Sunday and posted an apology the day before, acknowledging his letter, which purported to speak for the business group and led off with the phrase “ALL lives matter,” was “terribly insensitive.”

In his resignation, Hilberman apologized for “putting the organization in this position.”

The swift and wide backlash included top members of Sonoma County’s political class as well as nonprofit and labor leaders.

Hernandez, the Los Cien founder, said Hilberman’s message was ignorant, offensive and alienating.

Alliance leaders should “educate yourselves on white privilege and structural racism and how that is perpetuated within your organization,” he wrote in his letter to Ling.

Hernandez, an amiable dean among local Latino leaders who rarely breaks from his nonconfrontational style, said in an interview Monday that he “needed to elevate my feelings, let it all out and stop holding back.”

"All lives matter sounds like a we're-all-in-this-together statement,“ he said. ”But the problem is ... it redirects the attention from Black lives, who are the ones in peril.“

Hilberman, in his initial message, also sought to draw a line between peaceful forms of protest and more destructive civil unrest, while criticizing vandalism of downtown businesses, including his own, during recent Black Lives Matter protests. He singled out protests and social movements throughout a half-century of American history he labeled "successful“ and others which he suggested did not merit their costs.

In his apology, Hilberman wrote he had intended to “broaden the conversation,” but realized he “wasn’t even in the conversation.”

“I know I have hurt and angered many,” he said. “I strongly believe that Black Lives Matter.”

The alliance, through its muscular and conservative-leaning political action committee, has spent more than $250,000 in the past five years to influence local politics, and its membership includes the county’s top public and private powerbrokers.

Goldschlag, a mortgage adviser who last year served as the alliance president, said Hilberman’s “intent was good” with an aim to “increase our communications and self-awareness of how we treat and interact with minorities.”

Asked if Hilberman was wrong to use a phrase ‒ “All lives matter” ‒ that has become a national political flashpoint, Goldschlag said, “I don’t think there was an understanding of how some people take the word ”all.“ He acknowledged that it was, in fact, an ”inflammatory” reference for many.

Goldschlag, a retired Santa Rosa police sergeant, said it was frustrating to see “some people refer to us all (in the alliance) as white supremacists. That’s not accurate at all.”

The alliance has a “diverse membership,” he said, noting that Mick Menendez, a financial advisor and past president, and Willie Tamayo, a longtime member and co-founder of La Tortilla Factory, are both Latinos.

Lisa Carreño, a member as executive director of the United Way of the Wine Country, said membership includes Black, Latino individuals and other ethnic minorities but not in proportion to their population in the county.

The group’s monthly meetings at the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club are attended by about 200 to more than 300 people, she said.

She condemned the phrase “all lives matter,” as presented in “a counterpoint to Black lives matter.”

“That counterpoint is flawed in light of the history of violence against Black people and the exploitation of Black people,” Carreño said.

She also faulted Hilberman’s references to vandalism and looting during recent protests in Santa Rosa, saying “there is no feasible way to equate vandalism with the unlawful killing of Black people as we’ve been seeing across the country.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, an alliance member who has received the organization’s financial support through the years, said she was offended by Hilberman’s initial letter.

“I think they need to hire somebody to help them diversify,” she said. “They need to look at their board, and bring in more people of color and women. They need to look at their biases and privileges.”

Rubin Scott, president of the NAACP Sonoma County, said the phrase all lives matter is not acceptable “when there’s disparity among all classes of people. That’s only promoting those of privilege and those of power.’”

“When we say Black lives matter we are shining a light on a demographic in society that has been oppressed,” Scott said.

Staff Writer Tyler Silvy contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

Read the letter

An archived version of Hilberman’s letter can be viewed here on the Internet Archive. His apology can be viewed here on the Sonoma County Alliance website.

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