Split at Santa Rosa City Hall over two women candidates led to selection of Dowd as councilman

The surprise choice of Dick Dowd, a highly respected utility board veteran, reinforced an existing gender imbalance on the council and bypassed a chance to make history with the city’s first Latina councilwoman.|

The Santa Rosa City Council slogged through nearly 11 hours of interviews and discussion Tuesday to fill the seat vacated by former councilwoman Julie Combs, and in the end, after a series of evenly split votes, bypassed the two favored female finalists for a male candidate who while highly regarded was not their top choice.

In doing so, Santa Rosa’s elected officials missed a chance to make history - by selecting a Latina to serve on the council for the first time - and, with their surprise choice of Dick Dowd, reinforced an existing gender imbalance, leaving only one woman on the seven member council.

The selection process laid bare the entrenched camps that continue to dominate city politics, even on a relatively amicable council.

“I think most of us, if not all of us, are very disappointed, even though we ended up with a very well-qualified candidate,” Councilman Chris Rogers said in an interview Wednesday. Though he disputed that the council’s male majority had picked a man over two women, calling that assessment a type of “spin,” he acknowledged the public impression wasn’t entirely favorable for the city.

“From an optics standpoint, I do think it looks bad,” Rogers said.

The unexpected result came late Tuesday after the council had winnowed down the field of 19 applicants seeking Combs’ seat. The six members then deadlocked between Karen Weeks, the vice chairwoman of the city Planning Commission and a key former Police Department official, and Jacquelynne Ocaña, a private fiduciary and political newcomer who impressed council members with her application and interview.

The City Council split in two 3-3 tallies before five council members, all men, agreed to select Dowd, a 77-year-old retired builder and 25-year veteran of the Board of Public Utilities.

The move came over the objection of Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming, the lone woman on the council since Combs resigned in November.

Fleming, who favored Ocaña and did not vote for Weeks once through several ballots, said she viewed the final vote both as a failure to respect the will of Combs’ progressive base and as a missed chance to better reflect the demographics of the North Bay’s largest city, where roughly 30% of residents are Latino or Hispanic.

“It changes things when you have minority voices,” Fleming said. “It makes a difference.”

Councilman John Sawyer, who appointed Weeks to the Planning Commission and advocated for her amid the late rounds of voting, was joined by Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Councilman Ernesto Olivares.

“The three of us were looking for experience and an ability to hit the ground running,” Sawyer said, noting that Weeks also would have provided some diversity as a woman and a senior. “The other council members clearly were looking to satisfy Julie’s request for adherence to her philosophy, and we ended up with neither.”

In addition to Fleming, Ocaña’s supporters among incumbents included Rogers and Councilman Jack Tibbetts.

Sawyer added that he had “every confidence that Dick will do a great job.”

Schwedhelm said diversity was one of the criteria he considered in his decision, but that he put more stock in finding somebody who had the experience to hit the ground running, as well as someone with expertise in city government and someone who could work well with others.

He rejected any characterization that the city had taken a step backward with the council’s vote.

“I think the message it sends is that the most qualified person who was able to garner the support of four council members is the one that we selected,” he said.

While Dowd may not have been a finalist, he was the only applicant to receive five votes at any point in the multiple rounds of voting. He also received heaps of praise for his time on the Board of Public Utilities, where colleagues know him for his support of the city’s wastewater recycling project at The Geysers and for being “a fierce advocate for climate action,” said Chris Grabill, a member of that board.

“We’ll be really sad to lose Dick,” Grabill said. “He’s been this anchor and a wealth of knowledge and experience there.”

Dowd, for his part, said he was “very proud” to take his seat at the council; he’ll be sworn in next Tuesday. His top issues include the homelessness crisis and the continued dearth of affordable housing, and though his time on the council is limited to the remaining 11 months of Combs’s term, he said he hopes to make strides toward solving those thorny problems.

“The solutions will have to be fit to the problem that the individual has,” Dowd said, referring to the variety of causes for homelessness. “I think we can start with temporary encampment communities that have adequate sanitation and showers and pest control, and I’d like to see if we can spread those around the community in various quadrants where there’s land to do that.”

Dowd noted that he grew up in Sebastopol when Santa Rosa was a small fraction of the size it is now, with about 175,000 people. He still has fond memories of trips into the city for back-to-school clothes shopping and eating at Mac’s Deli on Fourth Street, but he’s of the mind that central Santa Rosa needs to grow up, literally.

“I think our city should be more like a metropolitan city than just a rural community,” he said. “I envision in the downtown area more high-rise type apartments, condo-type structures, that allow residents to use the transit systems, SMART and bicycles.”

Asked about the process of his appointment, Dowd said he thought the council acted appropriately in order to “break the stalemate” between Weeks and Ocaña.

“I think both of those women had good qualities, but they were stuck there,” he said of the council. “I think that’s why they transitioned into naming me, and I think that’s OK, given that it is a relatively temporary assignment.”

The Fountaingrove resident has no plans to run for re-election, and though he won’t “go away completely” after his term’s up in December, he said he’ll stay involved as a member of Sonoma Clean Power’s advisory committee and as a past president of the Sonoma County Alliance, the large local business coalition.

“I won’t quit, but I may not be a public City Council or board member after, say, 12 months,” Dowd said, “and that’s OK.”

Ocaña and Weeks both expressed their disappointment in interviews, but they’re not giving up on their attempts to be involved in local government. Weeks suggested the city engage with all 19 of the applicants as a way to help groom public servants, and Ocaña pledged to be active in Santa Rosa’s local elections in November.

Combs resigned after she and her husband purchased a second home in Ecuador, where they have been living part time. She said she respected the council’s choice of her replacement, though she was not pleased with the outcome.

“I am disappointed that the majority passed up the opportunity to increase diversity on the council. A Latina woman would have been a historic choice,” Combs said in an email. “I appreciate that they chose a safe and reliable vote for the status quo. At least (Dowd) is an engineer, too.”

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

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