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2018 Midterms

More Midterm Coverage: To see our other midterm election coverage, click here.

Election Results: To see live, updated results for local elections, click here.

A housing crisis, a budget deficit and chronic homelessness are the daunting challenges confronting the Santa Rosa City Council, which after Tuesday’s first round of district-based races is poised to add a new face, extend the tenure of a seasoned incumbent and select a new mayor.

Victoria Fleming appears poised to be that new council member, maintaining her lead Wednesday over Dorothy Beattie for the District 4 seat representing north Santa Rosa. When she awoke after a long night, she was in front by 169 votes — with 43.6 percent of the tally compared to Beattie’s 41.1 percent.

Fleming, 37, a clinical social worker and mother making her first bid at elected office, welcomed the advantage. But amid her determined search for coffee Wednesday, she wasn’t ready to declare victory just yet.

“I’m the kind of person where I’ll relax when I’m all done,” Fleming said.

County elections officials said an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 mail-in ballots remained untallied Wednesday. They were not able to say how many of those ballots came from Santa Rosa or whether the outstanding total could swing the District 4 outcome or any other tight races countywide. Updates in the tally could be days or weeks away, county elections officials said Wednesday.

Beattie, 63, a financial consultant also making her first run for public office, said she was “cautiously pessimistic” about the final tally and acknowledged the electoral math appeared to be against her.

But she had not conceded the race, the most competitive of two contested elections for the Santa Rosa council. A third seat, District 6, was claimed by incumbent Tom Schwedhelm, the former Santa Rosa police chief, who ran unopposed for his second term.

In southeast Santa Rosa’s District 2, Councilman John Sawyer prevailed in his bid for re-election, with 59.2 percent of the vote. His challenger, Lee Pierce, a former councilman, received 40.8 percent.

Schwedhelm, Sawyer, Fleming and Beattie all cited housing and homelessness as top priorities that will demand attention the next City Council’s attention.

The 2018 census counted about 3,000 homeless people in Sonoma County, including about 150 who cited the destructive October 2017 wildfires as the main reason they were without permanent shelter.

A newly formed regional task force, including county, Santa Rosa and Petaluma officials, several community experts and newly homeless people, is seen as a key new tool in addressing the problem, according to the council incumbents and Fleming and Beattie.

Santa Rosa will have to do without its single largest pool of funds envisioned to chip away at the housing shortage after voters Tuesday soundly rejected Measure N, the proposed $124 million housing bond. It would have helped leverage hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars to build up to 4,000 new affordable housing units, pay for homeless shelter projects and help first-time homebuyers make down payments, among other initiatives.

Without the proceeds from Measure N, “It’s going to take going back to the drawing board,” said Fleming, adding she hoped the city’s Planning & Economic Development Department could work with “developers who are civic-minded” to increase housing density downtown.

Santa Rosa’s roughly $15 million budget shortfall — and the effects spending cuts could have on housing and homeless initiatives — also concerned the two council members and the two candidates.

2018 Midterms

More Midterm Coverage: To see our other midterm election coverage, click here.

Election Results: To see live, updated results for local elections, click here.

City voters Tuesday approved Measure O, a six-year quarter-cent sales tax hike that will preclude numerous layoffs, but the City Council will still look to eliminate nearly 50 mostly vacant city positions early in 2019.

Schwedhelm, whose district includes the fire-ravaged Coffey Park neighborhood, said he was working on district-specific issues and thought it was unfortunate that “some members of our community don’t realize that some of our fire survivors are still struggling with housing needs.”

And homelessness is an issue that predates the 2017 fires, Schwedhelm said, particularly for those who are chronically without shelter and transient youth. That remains “very concerning to me” on a citywide level, he said.

Creating more permanent supportive housing options such as the Palms Inn, a converted former motel, would be a big step, he said.

Along with Sawyer and Beattie, Schwedhelm seemed skeptical about a notion pushed by some homeless advocates that transient people could live for a while in a city- sanctioned encampment on vacant land. The trio questioned whether such an approach would cause as many problems at it might solve, even if supportive on-site services were made available.

Fleming said she could see a sanctioned encampment working as an interim system and suggested the city should pursue multiple types of housing solutions for homeless people.

“The Palms is one model, but there’s no one specific type of homeless person,” she said.

Fleming also said it would be important for the city to secure a portion of the proceeds from Proposition 2, which frees up state money for housing for people with mental illness — particularly as the City Council prepares to make “tough decisions” on the services it can offer as a result of its budget imbalance.

Sawyer, who won his fourth term on the City Council, noted that Santa Rosa’s ability to progress on housing and homelessness initiatives will be hindered by its budget woes and by the uncertainty of when and how much money Santa Rosa is due in disaster assistance and reimbursements from the state and federal governments.

“We can’t stop what we’re doing now,” he said. “Everything will take longer. ... Our success is going to be delayed because the resources are dried up.”

Santa Rosa officials need to determine what changes should be made in the city’s diminished workforce to deliver services, Sawyer said.

“It’s a complete restructuring of our city, of the way the city organization functions,” he said. “It’s difficult to do, it can be painful and disruptive — and it is essential that we can get this job done.”

Council members are set to select a new mayor next month when the new City Council is installed. Frontrunners interested in the position include Schwedhelm and Councilman Chris Rogers, the current vice mayor. Chris Coursey, the current mayor, decided this year not to seek re-election.

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

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