Petaluma City Council Leaves the Fear and Loathing of the 2020 Campaign Trail Behind 

  • Pair of unanimous votes mark an unusually harmonious end to the divisiveness, instant outrage, and hyperbole of the 2020 campaign
  • The campaign for three seats on the city council over, the current council emphatically approves the Haas house renovation & Petaluma’s Recology contract – a major labor victory  
  • Miller-Kearney era on Petaluma City Council concludes with a nod to Argus-Courier editor Matt Brown

The Petaluma City Council concluded its 2020 business at its December 21 meeting with a pair of unanimous votes that saw its members clearly ready to put the residual fear and loathing of a bitter election campaign season behind it. Those two votes green-lighted the renovation plans of Peter and Ginnie Haas at their historic 6th Street home, and approved a new contract between the city and its waste hauler/recycler, Recology, a significant victory for the North Bay labor movement. 

With this year’s COVID-19 pandemic forcing virtually all political campaigning to social media, email, Zoom meetings, and to telephones, that campaigning proved both unusually brutal and effective, as the joint re-election efforts of purported liberal Democrats Mike Healy, Kathy Miller, and Gabe Kearney proved incapable of giving voters something to vote for at a time when a majority of Petaluma residents were demanding change. Healy was the sole incumbent survivor come election day, and the Petaluma City Council for 2021 will feature newcomers Dennis Pocekay and Brian Barnacle as a result. Both Pocekay and Barnacle are generally regarded as progressives, leaving the upcoming council the furthest left-leaning, perhaps, since the turn of the century, when the council included members David Keller, Pam Torliatt, Matt Maguire, Jane Hamilton and Janice Cader-Thompson.

I’ll put aside for the moment how liberal or progressive the aforementioned public servants were, and save for later an exploration of those distinctions, as many of the common political labels used at the state and national level rarely suit local politics well. The most glaring example of this is former council member Mike Harris, whose vocal fondness for Sarah Palin and the McCain-Palin GOP ticket (not to mention Rudy Giuliani) in 2008 never ceased to be a startling attention-getter. Yet, at the council-level of local politics, there often appeared to be little daylight between Harris and Team Healy – all shared a focus which prioritized the demands of prominent developers often familiar to Petaluma, like Basin Street Properties, over the needs and priorities of the common good of Petalumans and the Petaluma General Plan in particular. More on that here. and here.

Stoking fears of the radical left certainly played a big role in the 2020 campaign. We’ll get into that a little more shortly, but first, back to that December 21 meeting. That night the council also bade a fond farewell to the Petaluma Argus-Courier’s Matt Brown, who skillfully edited the paper since 2015, after reporting for the Press Democrat for two years before that. Brown is moving on to an undoubtedly more stable position with the County of Sonoma.

It was unclear until the December 7 meeting of the city council that things would go this way, after the Haas’s major renovation plans exploded into public view on social media not long before, particularly on the social media platform. At that meeting, as the council briefly deliberated upon requests to postpone consideration of the project until the new council is seated in the new year, Mayor Barrett left no room for doubt that she wanted to address the issue without delay.

“I find it offensive that people would suggest that we should not allow the sitting council to weigh in on this, because our council is our council until the next council is sat. We’re elected until the day we leave office. We have business in front of us, and I believe we should be doing it with the people who’ve been elected to do that,” stated Barrett, as the council unanimously agreed to look at the project on December 21, the last meeting of that body which would feature the participation of council members Miller and Kearney.

The News We Miss

It’s far too infrequent that we get around to covering issues specific to Petaluma at the Raucous Rooster, which is unfortunate as the local news monopoly operated by Sonoma Media Investments LLC consistently needs all the help it can get. The lack of early and adequate attention granted the Haas renovation and virtually every other project that comes before the city’s various public bodies leaves a vacuum neither the RR nor others have proven able to fill, often forcing public conversations belatedly onto social media, equally often with little journalistic or expert input of any kind. 

While working for Petaluma Community Access (PCA) in years past, we consistently made the effort to highlight the agendas of meetings and issues perceived as potentially important to the community on social media, but PCA is not now, nor has it ever been, a news-gathering organization. Since PCA was in the business of recording city meetings, it made sense that it would seek to highlight and promote those meetings to the public via social media. In any case, in more recent years Petaluma city staff has grown far more adept at public outreach via numerous social media platforms. 

Some private endeavors devoted to civic empowerment, like Know Before You Grow, have undoubtedly enlightened the public re: development projects and policy in Petaluma, and a multitude of private individuals have made considerable efforts to inform and educate the community in recent years, local contractor Teddy Herzog immediately coming to mind. Herzog has been putting important issues before the public for greater scrutiny since he arrived in Petaluma, it seems. KPCA’s Inside Petaluma (103.3 FM) frequently covers Petaluma development issues, but it is limited to one hour per week to do so, and its trio of hosts, Cindy Thomas, Jason Davies and former city council member Janice Cader-Thompson, represent a fairly narrow spectrum of liberal opinion in a community which historically, and to this day, has run the gamut from socialist to neo-fascist. 

Amidst this dearth of adequate information, the social media platform has in recent years become home to some of the most interesting, informative, and entertaining conversations in town. Those same conversations can also be the most vile, venomous, and mean-spirited discussions of all things Petaluma you’ve ever read, certainly including those posts relating to local politics, development projects, and policy., the Haas House & Holy Hyperbole

Map of the Haas house location and its three neighbors who appealed the HCPC’s approval of the project.

The Haas’s proposed renovation of a 115 year old home designed by revered local architect, Brainerd Jones, was unanimously approved by the city’s Historical and Cultural Preservation Committee (HCPC) on July 14, 2020, after which the project’s opponents realized they needed to get the attention of the public. Three opponents – all of whom are immediate neighbors of the Haas home – appealed the HCPC’s approval, and, joined by several others, established the Preserve Petaluma group to raise public awareness.

A number of factors related to a late-November post on about the Haas house caught my attention – that the Haas family was involved was certainly high among them. I was unfamiliar with the project until it was shared online. Peter Haas is a former CEO of Levi Strauss, and his family was a major sponsor of the resettlement of a generation of Jewish folks to this area in the period surrounding the Russian Revolution. They literally and figuratively seeded the radical chicken farming community that Petaluma became famous for, though the town was certainly destined to be known for chickens and eggs regardless. 

The Haas’s hiring of local architect Bill Wolpert for their project was a shrewd move, not only because he’s widely respected for his work, but also because for many Petalumans familiar with the man, he brings a high level of respect and credibility with him. Having observed Wolpert while recording countless meetings of the Petaluma Planning Commission on behalf of PCA, it seems virtually inconceivable that he would associate himself with a project that was not in keeping with the historic and small-town vibe that we all love about Petaluma, particularly the area downtown where the Haas’s bought their home. But all humans are inherently fallible, of course, and the renovation Wolpert planned for the Haas home is rather extraordinary, and therein lay many of the problem(s) for some of the Haas’s neighbors. 

Existing and proposed East Side profiles of the Haas House

Although the project only entails around 600 square feet added to the rear of the house above ground, it does involve the excavation of enough earth from underneath the house for the construction of an entirely new subterranean garage and workshop, 4,210 square feet worth! This apparently adds up to around 80 dump truck loads of earth to be removed, and construction will take over a year to complete. For this reason alone, it seems understandable that immediate neighbors in particular would be concerned about construction noise and dust, the duration of that construction, the effects upon soil, groundwater and tree roots, and more.

Front view from 6th Street of Haas house, with sloped driveway.

I first became aware of the Haas project via a post on in late November, and was surprised to find such stark differences of opinion on the merits of the project, with those differences of opinion so firmly stated as though they were matters of scientific fact. Surprised, that is, until I realized that local Oak Hill, Petaluma resident and CalEPA toxicologist Moira Sullivan was vehemently opposed to the Haas’s renovation and stirring up a mighty ruckus. Sullivan’s comments on the post were, almost immediately, emphatic and unequivocal, leaving no room for question or discussion. The Haas project was “insane,” she said.  Here’s the one that really got me riled up. According to Sullivan, “every single (lay) person who has heard about this project considers it a non-starter and thinks it ludicrous.” Holy hyperbole! She was aware of “every single (lay) person” who’d heard of the project, an extraordinary feat in itself. From the post’s commentary it was clear that a great many people were just learning about the project and had more questions than answers. 

Fool that I often am, and keenly aware of Mrs. Sullivan’s ability to achieve instantaneous outrage in social media commentary throughout the recent campaign for city council, I nonetheless suggested she might want to pass her comments through a filter, and/or tone down the rhetoric whilst the rest of us got up to speed on this Haas house thing. If it were the root of all things evil about development in one of our historic neighborhoods, some of us would surely be jumping all over ourselves in righteous response. But it turned out that the Haas project had passed an HCPC that is both knowledgeable and well-respected, and Peter and Ginnie Haas had engaged Diana Painter, also widely respected in the North Bay and way beyond for her expertise in historic architecture; and Bill Wolpert was the architect, and on and on and on. Contrary to numerous assertions on that post, public notifications of this project had occurred. The Haases had neglected to hold a public meeting, as they’d apparently intended, due to the coronavirus outbreak. That seemed in hindsight a bad mistake, but this was no cut and dry case of some rich folks being allowed to move-in and do whatever they want to our downtown, as was suggested. 

My comments to Moira did not go well. She took them personally. I took her response to me personally. She appeared to me to be stuck in campaign/attack mode, despite weeks having passed since the defeat of two-thirds of Team Healy that so many dedicated campaigners, activists, and others had contributed so much to. Privately, she suggested that I owed her some gratitude for what she apparently considers a significant role in the Miller-Kearney loss. I’m of the opinion, however, that no one contributed more to the Miller-Kearney losses than Miller and Kearney themselves. 

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail – Giving the Appearance of Solidity to Pure Wind

Kathy Miller repeatedly came across on social media during her recent re-election campaign as embittered and angry. Gabe Kearney was rarely visible by comparison. Miller also suffered from the discovery that one of her most articulate defenders and allies on social media, a Black Lives Matter activist, did not exist. She was fictitious. Add to that other missteps like her outspoken assertion that she only made $10 a month from council meetings, without acknowledging she received over $10,000 per year in lieu of unused health care benefits, according to her financial filing, and it really seemed that Miller had a remarkable way of shooting herself repeatedly in both feet this campaign season. 

The phone calls threatening local businesses with boycotts for posting signs in support of challenger Brian Barnacle certainly backfired on Team Healy. The out-of-state robocalls did not help Team Healy. The Argus-Courier editorial’s ludicrous fear-mongering over the radical left challengers’ “rigid ideology” did not help Team Healy. Had the challengers suffered from adherence to a rigid ideology then the Argus-Courier crew might have been able to name it, but they could not. Council member Dave King’s fear-mongering that the council challengers would only represent “a group of political activists with narrow agendas” did not help Team Healy. 

Did anyone actually read the mailers Team Healy sent out? They were utterly incapable of citing specific accomplishments, and their priorities appeared to have been a collection of the vaguest of generalities. Two favorites:

Climate Change. Dedicated to continue taking bold action to address climate change.

Affordable Housing. Continue Petaluma’s commitment to create affordable housing for both seniors and working families. 

For nine years, Gabe Kearney’s single most significant accomplishment for the people of Petaluma has been that he “adds diversity” to a mostly white council, as we could check off the Latinx and LBGTQ boxes with him on the council. Progressives and everyone to the left of Mike Harris in Petaluma can now begin thinking about letting Tiffany Renee off the hook for her role in granting Kearney such valuable real estate as this council seat for nearly a decade. 

Reading the literature of Healy, Miller & Kearney this campaign season made quite real the wisdom of George Orwell, when he wrote in 1946 that “one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

It’s actually quite remarkable how much yelling and screaming about hatred and divisiveness and polarization was done in the 2020 Petaluma campaign for city council by those doing the most to spread fear, hatred, divisiveness, and polarization. Yet the voters saw through all that, and Mike Healy can now spend a term providing his customary snide, testy sarcasm in the minority. 

Back to that December 21 Council Meeting

Way up there as I began this post I mentioned two unanimous votes at the December 21 meeting of the Petaluma City Council. The other I now return to before signing off is the vote in support of a new contract with Recology for our waste and recycling services. Former Executive Director of Northbay Jobs with Justice and Professor Emeritus of History at the SRJC, Marty Bennett, commented on this at the council meeting, and those comments are worth repeating in full. Bennett was present at this council meeting as a consultant for Teamsters 665, representing the workers at Recology. This new contract with Recology represents a significant victory for labor in the North Bay. 

The proposed rates reflect, in part, a sea change concerning employee compensation and working conditions for city’s waste hauler. Workers employed by Ratto approached Teamsters 665 in 2016, and informed us about the low wages, inadequate benefits and hazardous conditions. In response, the Teamsters initiated an organizing campaign and Jobs with Justice built a community support network for the workers. In May of 2017, Ratto workers voted overwhelmingly, by a 271-31 margin, in an NLRB election to join Teamsters 665.

After Recology purchased Ratto, the union and the company agreed to a five-year contract. By 2023, wages for drivers will roughly double. The typical driver now earns $27 an hour, plus another $11-$12 dollars an hour in benefits that include comprehensive family health insurance and retirement benefits. This dramatic improvement in employee compensation has occurred during a period of skyrocketing inequality in the North Bay and across the Bay Area. Because of their excellent wages and benefits, 85% of the Recology workforce can live locally in Sonoma or Marin counties. 

Many more private sector companies must replicate the compensation Recology employees enjoy, to promote equitable development along the 101 corridor that includes good jobs and infill of affordable housing near transit hubs. Also, health and safety conditions for drivers have greatly improved.

Recology has already replaced one hundred non-compliant trucks, and the entire fleet of Ratto trucks and heavy equipment will be replaced over the next three years. Workers are no longer exposed to unhealthy levels of toxic exhaust fumes and drivers no longer operate unsafe trucks that frequently break down. Moreover, worker safety is greatly enhanced, as the company strictly adheres to weight limits for each vehicle, as set by the state. In short, bad jobs with poverty wages at Ratto have been transformed into good jobs with family support. 


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