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Dick Dowd chosen to fill vacancy on Santa Rosa City Council

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The Santa Rosa City Council deadlocked Tuesday on choosing between two female finalists to fill Julie Combs’ vacant council seat, and, after neither side would compromise, ended up picking a man — Dick Dowd, a veteran city utilities board member who had not advanced during a previous round of voting.

Dowd will serve until December, a decision the six-member council reached about 11 hours after it began deliberating how to restore its ranks Tuesday in a marathon special session. He’ll finish the months remaining in the four-year term Combs vacated in November when she resigned, citing her and her husband’s personal health and financial issues amid their purchase of a second home in Ecuador.

Candidates were eliminated until a fourth round of voting saw Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming and Councilmen Chris Rogers and Jack Tibbetts cast ballots for private fiduciary Jacquelynne Ocaña while Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and Councilmen Ernesto Olivares and John Sawyer favored Karen Weeks, vice chair of the city’s Planning Commission. A fifth round of voting led to identical results — so the council got creative.

Sawyer proposed calling a special election, but City Attorney Sue Gallagher said that couldn’t be held until November, when the at-large seat would be up for election as part of Santa Rosa’s second set of district-based council elections. Then Rogers and Tibbetts suggested reconsidering Dowd, who received five votes in the first round of voting in which each council member was asked to vote for four people but lost support as the field narrowed after the third round of voting.

After Dowd was back in consideration, Fleming put up Ocaña’s name for an all-or-noting vote, which failed when only Rogers voted with Fleming. Finally, a preliminary vote for Dowd won support 5-1, with only Fleming against; she then asked for a “consensus” vote and flipped her selection to make the official tally unanimous.

It was not lost on Ocaña that the council, working to replace a progressive female politician in Combs, seemed as if it was about to choose between two women but then voted along gender lines to install a man on the council instead.

“I think that the council’s very divided,” Ocaña said in an interview after the meeting, “and there are people who are more comfortable with the status quo, and there are people who desire to see the actual community reflected in council, and I think we saw that here tonight.”

Ocaña added that while she applauded the council for filling the vacancy and avoiding the cost of a special election, “I wish it had been either Ms. Weeks or I, as the council is in desperate need of diversity, and that’s women, that’s people of color, that’s Latinos, that’s bilingual people.”

Schwedhelm, speaking after the meeting, explained that he decided to switch from his preferred appointee to a candidate who could secure at least four votes to ensure the council wouldn’t be short-handed for the rest of the year.

“Basically what it comes to for me is, are we going to continue on for the remainder of council member Combs’ tenure with six folks?” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Dowd, 77, has earned renown for his 25 years of service on the city’s Board of Public Utilities, a tenure that saw Santa Rosa craft a unique wastewater disposal system by shipping millions of gallons per day of treated sewage to The Geysers geothermal power plants, a move Dowd called “accidental genius.”

Like most applicants, Dowd, a retired builder, listed homelessness and affordable housing as his two top issues, and he expressed a willingness to reach out to people living on the streets and provide them with resources in hopes of seeing them housed and not living in public places — like the large illegal encampment ensconced on the Joe Rodota Trail.

“We have to give them to help to move on,” he said.

The interview process also brought out his concerns about PG&E’s planned widespread power shut-offs and about ensuring that homes in wildfire-prone areas were surrounded by sufficient defensible space. He also was asked by Fleming about whether he was a progressive in the vein of Combs, to which he volunteered his time serving on local boards such Habitat for Humanity and the Center for Climate Protection.

Dowd left before the final votes were cast and could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Ocaña’s progress to the final round of voting stood out as council members tended to favor experience: besides her, only prominent board members Dowd and Weeks and former council members Erin Carlstrom, Mike Martini, and Gary Wysocky remained after the first two rounds of voting.

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

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