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Sonoma County board’s union appointment shakes up Golden Gate Bridge district

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday appointed veteran union representative Chris Snyder to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District board, a move that followed pressure from labor groups to install one of their own amid a public dispute over district layoffs.

Snyder, 47, the assistant political director and district representative for Local 3 of the Operating Engineers, received support from nearly two dozen labor unions, as well as elected officials ranging from state Sen. Mike McGuire to Rep. Mike Thompson.

He was selected following a contentious deadlock last month over the post held for the past 12 years by Petaluma political consultant Brian Sobel, the county’s longest-serving bridge district appointee. His term was up, but when he sought reappointment this time, he faced a groundswell of opposition from union interests.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who abstained from breaking a 2-2 vote last month in favor of seeking more applicants, was the first to speak Tuesday, and threw her support behind Snyder, citing the need for new perspectives in appointed positions.

“At the end of the day, this decision comes down to what kind of experience qualifies you,” Hopkins said. “There is a lot of strength in having fresh voices and new voices come to the table and share new experience.”

Supervisor David Rabbitt, a Sobel supporter and fellow bridge district board member, would eventually join the board majority in a unanimous appointment of Snyder, but not before sharing his frustration following Hopkins’ comments.

“It is what it is,” Rabbitt said. “And it’s unfortunate because I think the bridge just lost out on a stellar director.”

The unusually fraught campaign for a volunteer role came on the heels of a controversial vote last month, when Sobel and a majority of his colleagues on the bridge district’s 18-member board agreed to lay off nearly 150 workers, a move union leaders said could have been avoided despite steep revenue losses tied to reduced commuter traffic during the pandemic.

Snyder, who has said he would champion workers as a board member, said Tuesday he will also work hard to ensure the district is solvent.

“I am honored for the opportunity afforded by the Board of Supervisors to serve Sonoma County on the Golden Gate Bridge District Board,” Snyder said in a statement. “I am a worker. I will work hard in the position. I will work to do everything in my power to ensure the safety and funding of the Golden Gate Bridge system.”

The extraordinary behind-the-scenes jockeying for the post spurred a reckoning last month with how the county conducts appointments, stalling the bridge district selection for weeks while county officials sought to cast a wider net for potential candidates.

The bridge district board is filled by appointments from six member counties that oversee the agency, which operates Bay Area bus routes, a ferry system and maintains the Golden Gate Bridge.

At Hopkins’ urging, the county conducted a robust outreach campaign for the open post, which yielded three more candidates, including Jack Piccinini, who ran for supervisor in 2016 after retiring as a longtime Santa Rosa Fire battalion chief.

The final choice still came down to Sobel and Snyder, who have known each other for years and have worked on the same side of some key issues in the county.

Sobel, 66, a Bank of Marin board member and former Petaluma councilman and planning commissioner who has done his share of campaigning, acknowledged in a text message before the vote Tuesday that he believed his time was up.

In a statement afterward, he said he enjoyed his time with the district and that he hoped he had made a positive difference.

But he took issue with Hopkins’ reasoning for replacing him, a rationale supported by Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin, who said she occasionally likes to shake things up.

“The idea that ‘life experience’ or ‘new blood’ was necessary or desirable was the thinnest of reasons for making a change,” Sobel said. “More truthfully, at the end of the day, the selection had more to do with a relentless union pressure campaign, reminding the supervisors of past donations and future support.”

Rabbitt said the bridge district’s decision to lay off workers was necessary to preserve funds for bridge maintenance, the district’s most important work. He added, forcefully, that the county was making a mistake walking away from an appointee with so much experience.

“This county would not take an employee who has consistently performed at a high level and replace them with someone else who has different life experiences — why would we do that?” Rabbitt said. “This doesn’t do the district justice. It doesn’t do our county justice.”

Snyder, who worked with the Biden presidential campaign in Nevada and is well known in local government circles, promised to bring those connections to bear for Sonoma County as a representative on the bridge board.

“I hope that the broad base that supported my candidacy to the position is a testament to my ability to work across the different divides that sometimes get in the way of solutions,” Snyder said in his written statement. “I want to express gratitude to Director Brian Sobel for his service to the Golden Gate Bridge District and thank him for his long service.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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