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Santa Rosa City Council slated to set rules for replacing Councilwoman Julie Combs

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Santa Rosa’s City Council has yet to decide how it will seek to fill the seat vacated Nov. 25 by Councilwoman Julie Combs, who had about a year left in her second term.

But already, two people who Combs mentioned in her outgoing comments have either expressed interest in the short-term appointment or stopped short of ruling themselves out.

“It depends on what the council wants,” said former Councilman Gary Wysocky, an accountant who served on the council from 2008 to 2016. “Do I have strengths that I could offer? Sure. I’m certainly not interested in a political career.”

Erin Carlstrom, a Santa Rosa attorney and councilwoman from 2012 to 2016, said she was honored Combs would consider her as a successor and would “love to continue being of service.”

“I’d be able to do the work pretty quickly off the bat,” Carlstrom said.

Another name mentioned by political observers is Karen Weeks, the vice chairwoman of the city Planning Commission and Mayor Tom Schwedhelm’s campaign treasurer. Weeks said she had been thinking about whether the position would be a good fit but hadn’t made a final decision. “I’m still exploring if I’m going to apply,” she said.

Combs, who recently took up part-time residency in Cuenca, Ecuador, where she and her husband bought an apartment, stepped down amid publicly aired concerns about whether she could continue representing the city while living for weeks at a time abroad. She cited concerns about her husband’s health and their personal finances as reasons driving her exit from political office.

Her departure opened a 60-day window to fill the seat that will close Jan. 24.

The City Council will have until then to either conduct interviews with applicants or call a city-funded special election. After two months, the replacement process would default to a special election — projected to cost between $184,000 and $324,000 and taking place no earlier than April 14.

“I can think of 180,000 better ways to spend it than on an election,” Schwedhelm said.

If recent history is any guide, the current six-member council can expect roughly 20 applicants, including former officeholders and political newcomers. The past two council appointees to fill vacancies, Robin Swinth in 2013 and Carol Dean in 2007, have been members of the city’s Board of Public Utilities, which oversees the city’s water and wastewater operations.

The council, which is not scheduled to meet in full between Dec. 17 and Jan. 7, is set to finalize a schedule and other details, such as questions to ask applicants, at its Tuesday meeting. City documents point to a tentative application period of Wednesday through Dec. 18, with interviews slated to start Jan. 7.

In an interview shortly before leaving office, Combs suggested the council choose a former council member because of the “massive learning curve” that comes with the position. Long the most progressive voice on the council, Combs also said she hoped the incumbents would seek to maintain some ideological balance and thought her successor should be somebody who wouldn’t or couldn’t run for office in 2020.

Schwedhelm, who said he had already heard from a handful of people about the vacancy, agreed that the city’s newest council member will have to hit the ground running, but didn’t want to impose any limit that they not seek election in 2020. They may have no intent to run when they start but could turn out to be a “rock star,” he said. “Why would I artificially limit that person?”

Wysocky, Carlstrom and Weeks don’t appear to be poised to run in 2020, either because they say they don’t intend to seek office or because they live in a council district that won’t be up for election next year.

Information about candidates will not be made public until the application window closes, said Dina Manis, the acting city clerk. Details about applicants must be published 72 hours before interviews to comply with the state’s open meetings law.

The city is transitioning to district-based elections and will fill four seats next year, including those held by two incumbents, Chris Rogers and Jack Tibbetts. Council members receive an annual stipend of $9,600, plus health benefits.

If the council decides to appoint, applicants will be required to collect signatures from at least 20 registered Santa Rosa voters as part of the nomination process and submit a statement of economic interests disclosing how they’ve invested their money, where they own property and what gifts they’ve received.

“I think that we will have a deep field of qualified candidates to pick from,” Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming said.

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

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