Sebastopol City Council Candidates Forum Recap, Part 2
In which the candidates discuss balancing the budget, police brutality, and smart meters.
NOTE OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The author of this article is a paid contractor with the city of Sebastopol, who is aware that any of the candidates discussed below could become her employers in a few months’ time.
NOTE: Due to its length, this article has been divided into two parts. This is the second and final part. You can find the first part here.
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On Wednesday, September 21, the Sonoma County League of Women Voters sponsored a candidate forum featuring five candidates for the three open seats on the Sebastopol City Council. It’s well worth watching. (You can find the video on the League’s Facebook page: https://fb.watch/fU0lOVQqtD/)
The candidates include Dennis Colthurst, a former policeman and longtime director of the Palm Drive Hospital District; Oliver Dick, a former corporate executive and business consultant; Sandra Maurer, a longtime Sebastopol resident and director of the EMF Safety Network; Jill McLewis, a downtown business owner and community volunteer; Stephen Zollman, a former public defender for San Francisco and community activist.
Here’s a brief recap of the second half of the forum.
QUESTION #6: Sebastopol’s reliance on the contract services model of governance has continued to increase in the last decade. What are your views on outsourcing key city functions, such as engineering, permitting, financial services, etc., through the use of contract services?
Both Maurer and Colthurst emphasized the importance of hiring local and in-house.
“When you outsource to someone who doesn't live in your community, doesn't walk the streets every day, you lose community. You lose the community contact, you lose the community flavor, when you're dealing with an outsourced contractor,” Colthurst said. “And I’ve learned in the past that you don’t save any money.”
Zollman agreed about using in-house talent when possible, but pointed out that sometimes you have to outsource to get the expertise you need.
McLewis went right to the point. “I believe that this has happened simply because we have a budget issue,” she said, understanding that the city hires contractors simply because it’s much cheaper than hiring full-time employees.
“In order for us to attract people to the city to be employees, we need to be able to compensate them properly. It's a full circle,” she said. “So while we do need to outsource certain things for expertise, it is important for us to have in-house staff who have skin in the game and who live in the community and understand the community and are able to make decisions that are reflective of that.”
Oliver Dick echoed McLewis’s point about the budget and the necessity of paying competitive salaries, but he also questioned whether some of these consultant contracts were worth making at all.
“I would say historically in the last several years, there's been an awful lot of outsourcing of aspirational projects to outside consultants when the city doesn't have any ability to pay for them,” referring to the city’s inability to pay for the final project. “So I would argue that the city government has wasted quite a lot of time and energy and money actually chasing after projects that aren't core to the city's well-being.”
QUESTION #7: The city's budget has continued to exceed its revenue for a number of years, even preceding the pandemic. What suggestions do you have to bring about a balanced budget while maintaining essential services?
All of the candidates agreed that supporting local businesses and filling empty storefronts could help balance the budget by bringing in more tax revenue.
Dick suggested that supporting local business by increasing tourism would help the city’s bottom line.
“We have to make Sebastopol more attractive for people to come and visit. It's as simple as that,” he said. “Getting more revenue coming in from retail and restaurants. We can't survive on property taxes alone, and we can't keep spending more money than we have.”
Colthurst suggested that expanding the business district would add money to the city coffers. (Editorial note: That money will go to the board of the business improvement association, which is an independent board elected by the businesses in town. It has no effect on the city’s bottom line.) He then suggested getting city staff to do more in-house and not to rely so much on consultants.
As his budget solution—in addition to increasing local business—Zollman fell back on his refrain of building partnerships with county, state and federal governments. He also congratulated the current council on their recent decision to hire a city grant writer.
For her part, McLewis picked up on Dick’s argument about aspirational projects.
“We have a lot of thoughts and dreams about how we would like Sebastopol to look, and we have a lot of different aspirational projects that we have sat through the presentations on the city council. And while I think they're lovely and we see all the different things that can happen here, what we often find out at the end of the project is that we just don't have the money for them.”
QUESTION #8: In the summer of 2020, the city council performed a deep dive on policing in connection with the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Decisions were made to improve oversight and alternative policing practices. Do you have any opinion as to whether this brought about any change? And what will you do to make these decisions come to fruition if you are elected to the council?
Zollman said he was eager to hear what happened in the police department as a result of the audit. “I think it's important for us to figure out where we left off with the audit because a lot of time and effort was put into having that audit be done, and again, if everything in the audit was complied with — all those umpteen policies, especially around the use of force — I would just like to see them. I think that would be a good step in the right direction,” he said. “And as I said before, whoever we bring in, I would like to see our policing efforts paired with mental health.”
McLewis praised Sebastopol for having done the audit in the first place. “Sebastopol has a long history of supporting social justice movements and policies and supporting equity, and I think, with the Black Lives Matter movement, what a time to reflect on our own actions,” she said. “I think that that was just reflective of who we are as people … I think that when we bring on a new police chief, we will need to look at where we need to make improvements based on that audit.”
Dick wasn’t in a BLM mood, however. “The quality of policing is a huge issue all over the western world. But I do think it's a little bit unfair to put all of the police in one bucket, which is something that seems to have been happening recently, and it’s a huge problem” he said, pointing out that “As far as I'm aware, George Floyd didn't live in the city of Sebastopol or Sonoma County or even California. And it was two years ago.” He then went on to point out George Floyd’s deficiencies as a human being – drug problem, criminal record — which, to this listener, didn’t seem germane to the question of his murder by police.
Regarding mental health services and policing, Dick noted that “In California, we have the new CARE Act, which was just passed by Governor Newsom last week … which I think is really a step in the right direction to Stephen’s point about the large numbers of people who are struggling with substance abuse and serious mental illnesses.” The CARE Act sets up a new court system for dealing with homeless people with serious mental illness. This new court system would make it easier for families, police and mental health workers to force severely mentally ill Californians into psychiatric treatment and housing.
Colthurst agreed with Dick that the kind of police brutality epitomized by the George Floyd case just didn’t exist Sebastopol.
“We don't have that problem in Sebastopol, California,” he said. “We are not a brutal police department. We’re part of the community.”
At the same time, however, both Dick and Colthurst agreed that the audit contained some good ideas. “It's always a good idea to be asking questions and having transparency around law enforcement and community policing,” Dick said.
Discussing the police audit report, Sandra Maurer said, “What this report found is that Sebastopol primarily has significant support and positive regard for the local police.” At the same time, she said, “They [the report] had tons of recommendations, including improved transparency, accountability and better interface between the police department and the public. And a lot of these recommendations were met and some are still waiting to be implemented, but … staff shortages and COVID have curtailed opportunities for more community engagement.”
Question #9: What is your position on the current plans to install smart water meters and smart gas and electric meters throughout Sebastopol? In a related question, what is your view about PG&E's effort to install smart electric meters everywhere after the city passed a moratorium to prevent this?
All of the candidates tried to walk a fine line here — agreeing that there might be health effects (Colthurst was the only one who mentioned that he’d like to see an objective report on this) and that no one should be forced to have a smart meter if they didn’t want one or be forced to pay for not having one. Dick had an even more fundamental objection — he believed the technology was too expensive and would wear out too soon.
In their closing statements, several candidates brought up a hot issue which wasn’t included in that night’s questioning, namely fire department consolidation. Maurer and McLewis came down firmly on the side of keeping the Sebastopol Fire Department independent, as did Colthurst, who, although he said he was keeping an open mind on the issue, was mostly against consolidation.
In their final statements, the candidates tried to sum up their platforms.
Oliver Dick re-emphasized his “back to basics” platform: “It's basically disaster and fire preparedness, public safety, community participation, roads and utilities, jobs and housing, environment and diversity. And we need to have a hotel downtown, but it's very, very urgent to get our budget up. We need to attract more businesses. We need to refocus on essential services. We just have to really get ourselves back in focus for what's going to be a pretty difficult year next year and get back to basics and just get things moving.”
Sandra Maurer summed up her platform this way: “I will uphold our general plan and other policies, including policies to reduce EMFs to protect public health and safety, and I will be a watchdog on all environmental issues. I will listen and work with residents and local experts to develop solutions to create a more vibrant community.”
Dennis Colthurst emphasized his years in public service. “I'm excited about the evolution of Sebastopol. I've been here for a long time. I've seen a lot of really good changes. We've had bad years and good years as far as revenue and expenses … I want to be part of this evolution. And I think it's an exciting time; I think Sebastopol is turning a very big corner, and I hope to serve my community.”
Stephen Zollman reiterated his platform like so: “As I said before, all of my goals are encompassed in trying to bring more revenue in through supporting our downtown businesses, actually all of our businesses across Sebastopol, and increasing resources by building better and stronger partnership and collaboration with county, state and federal entities. With that, we'll be able to increase and maintain our current infrastructure to include the library, maintain safety through pairing mental health services with law enforcement efforts, and increase the mentorship of our diverse youth.”
Jill McLewis re-emphasized her experience in local organizations. “I love Sebastopol. It's a beautiful place to live. I feel like we're all lucky to live here. And we are evolving and we all know that. We have many hurdles ahead of us as far as decisions and financial challenges. I've been attending city council meetings for at least seven years regularly. I've been involved with the community center which partners with the city so I've worked with the city on a number of projects, and I'm very aware of how that process works. I own a business in Sebastopol. I ran the Chamber of Commerce … I'm concerned about our infrastructure and our tax base and what we can do to attract more businesses to Sebastopol and to improve it.”
Read Part 1 of this two-part article here.