Five candidates contesting two county supervisor seats met for a wide-ranging and well-structured debate Thursday evening. It was organized by Los Cien, a council of local Latino leaders.
Housing prices, law enforcement accountability, racist incidents driving away county leaders, evictions, and the possible relocation of county workers to downtown Santa Rosa were among the issues raised in an informative, issues-based 90-minute debate.
District Four Incumbent James Gore faces pastor and businessman Andy Springer, while two candidates, Petaluma Planning Commissioner Blake Hooper and former television news editor Kevin Hayenga try to unseat District Two incumbent, David Rabbitt.
Each candidate decried the region's chronic housing shortage and epic prices. Gore told those assembled there's no easy solution.
"There is no way to fix housing overnight, especially when you live in a community where people are buying second homes hand over fist. You can continue to regulate like we have, short term rentals, vacation rentals appropriately, so you've seen us approve every project, even though people come forward and say, 'I support affordable housing, but not here,' and that happens on every single project. But you've seen us continue to lean in and approve projects."
Rabbitt called for better coordination to push growth into established cities, an effort to maintain open space and not worsen congestion or greenhouse gas emissions.
"We have nine incorporated cities, all of them have urban growth boundaries, we tax ourselves to make sure that we have city-centered growth, yet we have cities that still have vacant land in the middle of their town. That's what we need to work on. Here in Petaluma you have two bare blocks, right next to the SMART station and you have another bare piece of land that's destined for another SMART station. There was an opportunity to approve both projects--that resulted in more than 24 percent affordable housing, but yet it was denied, so that's a problem. The other problem, I can tell you as an architect is there are jurisdictions that work, to actually get housing built and there are jurisdictions who make it more difficult, more expensive, more lengthy."
While several mentioned county fees imposed on developers as adding to the staggering prices of new construction, Rabbitt touched the third rail of state politics. He noted Proposition 13's limits on property taxes shifts and concentrates the costs of public services onto new development.
"So, the next ones have to pay for all the infrastructure that haven't been budgeted over the course of time. That's a problem that we need to solve the housing crisis by coming and really talking honestly about it."
The recent departure of several high level, non-white county officials, most citing troubling, disrespectful behavior stemming from racism, along with repeated 'micro-aggressions,' was also raised with the candidates.
While Gore and Rabbitt said the incidents are part of a difficult process of moving forward, challenger Hooper vowed to intensify efforts.
"These are only tough issues if leadership at the head does not set a clear tone and agenda for how county administration and departments will move forward," he said.
Hooper called for hearings on the county's human resources no-tolerance policies, along with abundant training.
"When it comes to equity, when it comes to microaggressions, there's really never enough training to make sure you are evolving, that's certainly true for an entire staff. I would also want to make sure that we give the department of Equity the budget it actually needs and the authority it should have had in the first place."
Candidate Andy Springer says racism and bullying must not be tolerated, but didn't weigh in with specifics.
"I honestly believe that there's things in place, and maybe there needs to be more re-enforcement or more enforcement of it, and if there are other things that need to happen to make it a more appropriate environment than those things need to happen.
Hayenga, who noted he has personally intervened in incidents before, said he'd not shy away from doing so again.
"I would step up. I would use the clout of my office to stop such attacks and stop such discrimination, allow people to feel comfortable working wherever they are working. It strikes me so much to hear that discrimination is happening at the county office level, I did not know that. I would be there for you."
The nascent plan to move county offices, also came under scrutiny. Relocating county offices to downtown Santa Rosa, isn't a good use of limited funding, Springer argued. "So many people in our area, suffering so badly, hovering above the poor line, barely making it every day, us talking about building these ivory towers is a ridiculous concept."
Hayenga also saw the move as a poor investment, but lamented that current administrative buildings are difficult to reach without a car. "I understand the mass transit thing is not good and the county, where it is right now, but, I think it would be too expensive to move it to a downtown location, so I would vote against it."
Rabbitt is skeptical of the project's financing plan, which he says would, with interest, double the project's cost. Challenger Blake Hooper, noted that doing nothing won't protect the county from major expense.
"The current county complex is also falling apart and the county will need to do something one way or another and retrofitting the current county complex will cost a fortune."
The election for both seats is scheduled for June 7th. If no candidate secures a majority, which is more likely in the three-way race for district two, then the two candidates receiving the most votes will face a run off November 8th.