Santa Rosa City Council candidates stake out similar positions at forum

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In preparation for Santa Rosa’s first election featuring district representation, a candidates’ forum for the City Council on Friday night featured civility and a modicum of agreement among the contenders on such issues as homelessness, affordable housing and climate change.

The five candidates seeking two seats didn’t criticize one another in the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County. Instead, they used their time to explain their reasons for running, their philosophies and their fitness for office.

Three candidates for the District 4 seat covering central and north Santa Rosa highlighted the challenges resulting from the 2017 North Bay wildfires and the important role the council will play in shaping the city’s future.

“I think this is an epic time” for Santa Rosa, said Dorothy Beattie, 63, a small business owner running for the District 4 seat that includes central and northeast portions of the city. Given the chance to help make key decisions, she added, “I want to be a part of that.”

Similarly, social worker Victoria Fleming, 37, said after the fire she realized “we’re going to have this historic opportunity to build for the future, but we have a City Council with no families at the table.”

And nonprofit deputy director Mary Watts, 30, said she wanted to help provide “a vision of Santa Rosa moving forward,” including for residents who find the city a costly place to live.

She and her husband value their quality of life in the Junior College neighborhood, Watts said. But as renters, “it’s even hard for us to justify staying here.”

About 40 people attended the event at Santa Rosa’s City Hall.

Santa Rosa’s seven council members have long been elected in citywide campaigns where the top vote-getters win the available seats. But under threat of a voting rights lawsuit, the city is transitioning to district elections, similar to those with the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Voters this fall will cast ballots for three districts, while the remaining four seats will come up for election in 2020.

Along with District 4, voters will elect a council member for District 2, which covers such southeastern portions of the city as Doyle Park, Kawana Springs and Bennett Valley. There the candidates are three-term councilman John Sawyer, 63, and Lee Pierce, 71, a business owner who served on the council from 2004 to 2008.

Also on the ballot is District 6, which includes the northwest section of the city. In that district, incumbent councilman Tom Schwedhelm is running unopposed. He did not attend the forum.

At Friday’s forum, Pierce acknowledged that he originally wasn’t planning to seek election for District 2 but did so after no other challengers stepped forward.

“I’m running because I think every seat should have a choice,” he said.

Sawyer suggested historic challenges to boost housing and balance the city budget prompted his decision to seek re-election.

“I’m running in this election because as a council member we have left a great deal of unfinished business, and it’s more serious than in other years,” he said.

The one issue where the candidates differed the most Friday involved whether Santa Rosa employers should be required to pay a minimum hourly wage of $15 before the statewide minimum reaches that amount in 2022.

Sawyer said he would need more information before he could agree to such a change. Beattie said she could support the higher wages for large employers like Target and Walmart but not for small businesses.

Watts, Fleming and Pierce all said they would support accelerating the time for requiring a minimum wage of $15.

“I want it now,” Pierce said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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