In our May 15 editorial concerning the all-important 5th District race for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, we concluded that of the five candidates running, Lynda Hopkins offered the best opportunity “to move past the acrimonious political battles of yesteryear toward new and creative ways of addressing the prevailing needs of today.”
With just nine days remaining before the run-off between Noreen Evans and Hopkins is decided, nothing has dissuaded us from that position. On the contrary, given the negative campaigning that has occurred, we feel all the more certain that it’s time to move past these old us-vs.-them narratives.
Evans and her supporters would have voters believe Hopkins supports unchecked development and wants to inflict irreparable harm on the region’s landscape through gravel mining and vineyard expansion. Rubbish. When all is said and done, both candidates are progressive Democrats with little difference between them on such key issues as encouraging affordable housing, keeping winery events in check and protecting the environment.
Hopkins is smart, energetic and, as an organic farmer with two degrees in environmental science who has lived in the region for nine years, better represents the values of west county life than Evans, who moved to the district a mere 11 months to run for this seat.
There are multiple other reasons why Hopkins deserves the support and confidence of voters, but one should receive special consideration. In July, a county-appointed independent advisory committee presented to supervisors its long-awaited report on pensions, which found that despite a recovered economy and modest reforms at the state and local levels, the county’s pension problem “is not yet close to being solved” and threatens to get far worse. Because of enhanced benefits that were retroactively awarded to public employees some 12 years ago — along with some spurious methods usually reserved for high-ranking officials to “spike” retirements — the county had to pony up $113 million for employee pensions last year, an amount that has increased 500 percent since 2000. The bottom line? The committee found that the pension issue has siphoned away $26 million each year on average from regular programs — money that could have been used for roads, parks, recreation programs, etc. — for the past 10 years. And if nothing is done, an additional $741 million will be required between now and 2030, an average of $53 million a year. As the report states, “To eliminate the county’s unfunded pension obligation, it would cost each person living in the county approximately $1,650.”
But Evans has shown through her words and actions that she does not regard this as a serious problem. She has compared it to a mortgage, something the pension committee directly refuted in its presentation to supervisors. She has shown further disregard with her risky proposal to use county pension funds to subsidize affordable housing projects, a move that could leave taxpayers holding the bag for an even greater share of pension costs if such a venture fails to meet investment goals. Keep in mind that the projected $741 million in additional pensions costs expected by 2030 is a best-case scenario. If investments take a dip, it will get worse.
But few should be surprised by this. As we’ve noted before, Evans, long supported by public employee unions, had a poor record as a state legislator when it came to helping local agencies with pension problems. In fact, she authored legislation that would have compounded the problem by enhancing benefits (but, thankfully, was forced to retreat after the public responded with outrage). And she supported a union-backed bill that made it harder for municipalities to seek help in bankruptcy court. Frankly, she’s the wrong person at the wrong time.