“And do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”
— William Shakespeare, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
“You don’t win friends with salad.” — Homer Simpson
Every other year, it’s customary for the Santa Rosa City Council to keep the agenda light for the first or second meeting in December. That’s because at the end of the session, they swear in new council members, say good-bye to departing ones and elect a new mayor and vice mayor. They then retire to an end-of-year dinner party where, despite their differences, they share a meal, make speeches, pass out gifts and, in some sense, bury the hatchet.
It’s a civilized custom.
But civility is not high on the agenda these days at any level of government. In fact the animosity is so deep among Santa Rosa council members — particularly following last week’s fractured vote on the bike bridge — that the traditional dinner planned for Tuesday night at Legends at the Bennett Valley Golf Course may be in jeopardy.
“They might as well cancel that dinner because we are going to be there (at the meeting) late,” said Mayor Susan Gorin.
Gorin expects the council chambers to be packed with cycling enthusiasts upset at the prospect that Councilman John Sawyer will be a stick in the spokes of plans to build a new bike-pedestrian bridge connecting the Santa Rosa Junior College and Coddingtown Mall. In brief, Sawyer voted in favor of moving ahead with the bridge, which is estimated to cost from $13 million to $20 million, although some consider both numbers high. Sawyer said he did so only so he could move to reconsider this week when two new members, Jake Ours and Scott Bartley, join the council. Presumably, Ours and Bartley will be less supportive of the bridge. Reconsideration votes can only be requested by someone who supported the original motion.
“I don’t think John thought this through,” said Gorin as she joined me for coffee before cleaning out her mayor’s office last week. “Is this really how you want to start a new year? It really is a power play.”
Gorin is angry. It’s obvious. And she seems more determined than ever. Part of that may be the fact that she was the top vote-getter in last month’s election, which, no doubt, is a confidence builder even in an election in which her majority lost power. After Tuesday, she also will no longer be mayor. That’s something of a relief, she confesses.
“I don’t have to worry about bringing the council together,” she said. “I just have to do what I believe is in the best interests of the city.”
That includes having her own plan for disrupting Sawyer’s maneuver. Although she wouldn’t go on the record, in talking with other sources, I believe Tuesday’s meeting will go something like this. Before the new council members are sworn in, someone will call for a reconsideration of the bike bridge vote. The reconsideration will then fail, likely on a 3-3 vote. (Marsha Vas Dupre is out of town.) Under council procedures, once a reconsideration vote has been taken, it cannot be brought up again.
As politics go, it’s a shrewd move. But doesn’t this have the potential to make the divisions worse?
“As I said before, this wasn’t even a controversial issue before last week,” she said. She acknowledges that the next council majority will still have opportunity to kill the project. It just won’t be able to stop the initial allocation of $100,000 in redevelopment funds.
“It’s staggering to me that they are saying no to economic development, and they are saying no to local jobs,” she said shaking her head. “It’s a mystery to me that they are drawing this line in the sand. This is an important project for the city.”
“I truly believe it’s a build-it-and-they-will-come situation,” Vice Mayor Gary Wysocky said about the bridge when I talked with him on Friday. He pointed to the many potential economic benefits for the Coddingtown area. “If this isn’t business friendly, I don’t know what is.”
When asked what he thinks will happen Tuesday, Wysocky sighed deeply. “I don’t want to get into that right now,” he said. He also was noncommittal about whether he would be attending the dinner.
Councilwoman Jane Bender, who is stepping down after 10 years on the council, said she also is unhappy with how the year is ending and would be very disappointed if the dinner is canceled. “I’m just sad because there was no reason to have this (on the agenda),” she said. “I think it’s a great project. I just think the public will not understand.”
From my perspective, it appears that the council members are really not that far apart, at least on this project. Most like the idea of an east-west link to SMART and the jobs this would create. But some are concerned, with good reason, that the public is just now getting the details of this and may regard it as a “bridge to nowhere.” In other words, this may be more of a dispute over selling this idea not just funding it.
As for the anger, the solution is less evident. But a little socializing wouldn’t hurt. Up until a few years ago, council members in many communities, including Santa Rosa and Petaluma, would routinely go out for dinner together during or after meetings, mindful, of course, about any potential Brown Act violations. But when budgets became tight, those dinners were cut out. More recently, electeds have been reluctant to dine together even on their own dimes.
Those at all levels of government seem to lamenting the bygone days of this kind of camaraderie. In his recently released book “California’s Golden Years,” former North Coast state legislator William T. Bagley wrote about a regular Monday night poker game that legislative leaders, including Willie Brown, used to have at the Capitol. “We fought on the issues, but we were friends; there were few cheap-shots, no hit-pieces,” he wrote. “Civility prevailed because the leaders of both parties gathered together for a weekly card game. Friendships trump cheap shots.”
I doubt we’re ready to return to the days when major decisions were made around poker tables. But I wonder whether there still isn’t room for collegiality even in an age of greater transparency.
Whatever happens Tuesday, I hope the council would at least make time for a meal. Homer Simpson may be right that you don’t win friends with salad. But you may be able to set aside some grievances over one. And that’s the kind of bridge building the city could really use.
– Paul Gullixson is Editorial Director for The Press Democrat. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call him at 521-5282.