Appearing autocratic, oblivious to Petaluma public opinion, and apparently unaware that disenfranchising voters of their right to elect their mayor might be viewed as an anti-democratic move, the effort of Petaluma city councilmember Mike Healy and his fellow lawyers on the council, Kathy Miller and Dave King, to move the city to an appointed-mayoral system died at Monday’s meeting of the Petaluma City Council amidst a flurry of negative public commentary.
Councilmember Teresa Barrett attempted to kill the effort to move to an appointed-mayor system shortly after the meeting began, calling it an attempt at voter “disenfranchisement.”
“I would actually like to hear public comment on this issue now, before we actually take the vote, because I think what we’re doing by putting this agenda item on tonight’s agenda without any public record or fanfare, where no-one knew….well obviously people knew about it [referring to the large crowd in the chamber], but this is a result of social media. There was no public discussion, there was no community discussion, no dialogue about what is basically disenfranchisement from my point of view, of the electorate in a direct election and taking that power from the voters and putting it among the city
councilmembers, in fact, four of the city councilmembers, because that’s all it would take then to elect a mayor. Actually that would be appointing a mayor. I think it would be an important thing to hear from the public before we do this because this is a procedure that we have in our council that is regularly used for urgent business that cannot wait. Unless we consider the fact that allowing people to have an appointed attempt to become mayor rather than being elected by the public, there’s no urgency in terms of the community for this. So that’s what I would like to see, that we have public comment on this.”
The chamber erupted with applause as Barrett concluded her remarks.
Ignoring Barrett, the councilmembers voted 6-1 to hear the proposal. They heard a great deal more from the public than they anticipated.
Councilmember Dave King, who, along with Healy and Miller proposed putting the item on the evening’s agenda, accurately assessed the public mood and immediately began backtracking on support for the change, stating he “really just wanted to start the discussion about possibly making the change.” He cited the expense of the 2014 mayoral race, the costliest in the city’s history, and like Healy and Miller he also noted that every other city in Sonoma County appointed their mayors.
The proposed amendment to the city’s charter would have taken the right to vote for mayor of Petaluma from the public and handed the responsibility for choosing our mayor over to the Petaluma City Council, effectively granting a majority of four councilmembers the ability to appoint our mayor for a one-year term. There were no term limits suggested, and mayors could be reappointed under the plan.
The proposal was suggested through a process typically reserved for urgent, time-sensitive matters of policy. Healy’s sense of urgency ultimately doomed the measure, as it became clear the public felt it was being pushed to give up its mayoral vote with little debate or discussion.
Councilmember Healy attempted to downplay the whole affair.
The way it’s agendized, by the way – no action is going to be taken tonight, this is only direction.
If the council does direct staff to bring this back, at the next meeting, then, the actual vote would be made on whether to place this on the June ballot. The thing I think people need to be aware of is, this city council does not have the ability, on its own, to change the way the mayor is selected in the City of Petaluma. What we can provide is an opportunity for the voters to decide if they want to change it through a charter amendment, and the next opportunity to do that is in the June primary. The deadline for placing a matter on the June primary ballot would be at the end of next week and our last council meeting before that is next Monday.
Healy made his best case for the charter change, stating that in the twenty years since he first joined the council in 1998, there had only been two two-year periods where we had a mayor with a council majority that supported the mayor.
“That’s something the other eight communities of Sonoma County don’t have to put up with.”
This measure was suggested suddenly because of Mayor Glass’s announcement that he would not seek re-election, according to Healy. It was pointed out by others that this effort also was begun after a “Draft Teresa for Mayor” campaign had begun in the community. The mayoral election will occur in November 2018. Currently former city councilmember Mike Harris is the sole declared candidate for mayor. Harris lost to Mayor David Glass in 2014 by just 84 votes.
Every single public commenter at this council meeting acknowledged the desire for a broad public discussion on the matter, and many suggested a host of other possible reforms, for that matter: district elections, publicly financed elections, ranked-choice voting and more.
Councilmember Kathy Miller was unable to avoid sounding condescending as she also sought to portray the measure as an attempt to start a conversation, not necessarily to establish policy. She noted her effort to dispel “misinformation” that had been shared via social media online earlier in the day.
Petaluma’s Greg Reisinger, an Oak Hill resident and longtime progressive civic activist, pointed out to the council that Petaluma is unique among Sonoma County cities in many ways, the direct election of our mayors being just one example. But that uniqueness is among our great strengths, he suggested, not a weakness.
“I can’t come up with reasons why I would give up my vote for mayor, and it certainly isn’t because we want to be like every other city. That is one of the worst measures I can think of,” said Reisinger. “I find the proposal frankly arrogant and insulting to the voters of Petaluma. It suggests that you can do better than what we can do as voters.”
“I actually think we’ve done a good job electing the last couple of mayors, so good that we managed to re-elect one. So at best the proposal is ill-timed. It looks to me like a cynical attempt to appoint people who otherwise wouldn’t get elected. I ask that you not waste any more time on the issue. Let us, the voters, we’ll come and tell you if we want to drop our right to vote for mayor.”
Beverly Schor, also of Petaluma, was appalled that she first heard of the proposed charter amendment via social media, and demanded answers.
I have to say that I’m quite dismayed to have to hear through public social media that there is something on the agenda that is potentially going to take my vote away for mayor. I feel that something as important as that needs to have a town hall meeting. You need to tell us why you think this is important, how this will be better, how I, as a resident of Petaluma will benefit from this. And I don’t want to hear about it in a special election. I don’t want to pay for a special election. We don’t have money to pay for all of the things we need, and to put it into a special election instead of into potholes or fixing the D Street bridge or any of these other issues before us is just plain wrong. This is a democracy. This is my vote. I need to know why you’re potentially taking it away. Thank you.
Ultimately it was City Attorney Eric Danly who helped kill the proposed disenfranchisement, for now anyway. There simply is not enough time to get the measure on an upcoming ballot given the strict notification requirements required for charter amendments, according to Danly. He was apologetic that, due to illness, he had been unable to give this assessment prior to this council meeting.
Grassroots democracy and people power won out over the imperious and top-down desires of the Mike Healy-led group on the Petaluma City Council at this meeting.
It was a beautiful sight and all Petalumans are the victors for it, thanks to the efforts of a number of dedicated citizens. Signs of a new, broad progressive coalition are becoming apparent, as the efforts of longtime citizens like Reisinger and others joined the activism of newer citizens like Indivisible Petaluma’s Zahyra Garcia to say with one voice, “you can’t take our vote.”