2020 Vision: A Review of the Year in Sonoma County Politics

It has been quite a year here at the Bohemian.

At the start of 2020, in a time of staggering inequality, information overload and climate destruction, there was no shortage of stories to tackle. Then, in March, the news gods tacked a pandemic on top of it all for good measure.

Still, 10 months into the pandemic, in a year when dozens of newspapers went out of business across the country, we are proud to be alive and kicking. 

What follows is a wrap-up of some of the biggest stories of the past year. 

Pandemic Year

Last weekend, Sonoma County joined most other Bay Area counties in following the state’s shelter-in-place order. The state order, which will last through early January, restricts the activities of a variety of non-essential businesses, in hopes of slowing the spread of the virus as vacant ICU beds become worryingly scarce.

It’s too soon to tell whether this latest effort will restrict the spread of the virus, but the announcement of a vaccine has many hoping there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

Either way, we’ll have to get through a dark winter. The Covid-19 caseload continues to rise as a number of worrying financial cliffs loom in the near future. 

For instance, two forms of additional unemployment benefits provided under the federal CARES Act are set to expire in late December, further worsening the financial situations of families nationwide. 

Then there’s the housing issue. For the moment, renters cannot be legally evicted in California if they have missed rent due to Covid-19—provided they jump through the proper hoops required under county and state eviction laws. However, the current state law delaying evictions ends on Feb. 1, 2021.

In Sonoma County, a group of tenant advocacy groups have renewed their efforts to push the Board of Supervisors to approve stronger, and longer, protections for renters.

Still largely unaddressed is what will happen to the outstanding rent debt at the end of the pandemic. At the end of October, Moody’s Analytics estimated that 12.8 million people nationwide could owe an average of $5,400 in missed payments to their landlords by the end of 2020. The total bill could come to $70 billion by the end of December, Moody’s estimated.

That mounting bill means a lot of renters and landlords will be wishing for a deal this holiday season. We’ll see soon enough if politicians will deliver coal or Christmas presents.

PG&E Escapes Bankruptcy 

Last November, following the Kindcade Fire, Santa Rosa’s Shady Oak Barrel House offered a “Fuck PG&E” beer on tap in the wake of the Kincade Fire. The controversial IPA’s name captured the flavor of the moment: fury against an investor-owned company which had become synonymous with so much that is wrong with corporate America in an age of climate crisis. 

Once the pandemic hit, that fury turned elsewhere. Still, 2020 was quite an eventful year for PG&E.

In June, after almost a year and a half of deliberations and hundreds of million dollars in lawyers’ fees, a bankruptcy court approved PG&E’s bankruptcy exit plan, which required the company to pay out billions of dollars to various stakeholder groups and enact a number of new policies. 

In the end, fire victims were put last in line to sign the deal—after private companies, insurance providers, government agencies and others—and then pressured to sign what some victims ended up considering a bum deal. 

Still, PG&E wasn’t out of the woods. 

In July, the company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter as a result of starting the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County. The same month, CalFire determined that electrical transmission lines owned by PG&E caused the 2019 Kincade Fire, which burned 77,758 acres, destroyed 374 buildings and caused four non-life threatening injuries in Sonoma County. It’s now up to Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch to determine whether or not to press any charges against the utility company.

Since then, PG&E has begun to send checks to fire victims and local governments impacted by the October 2017 fires. Although Santa Rosa and Sonoma County are still deciding how to divide up their millions, the hope is that the payout will patch up some past wounds and help to prepare for future fires, whether or not they are caused by PG&E.

Homeless Rights

Earlier this month, Judge Vince Chhabria weighed in on a legal agreement between local governments and advocates for the homeless, marking the latest chapter of a three-year legal battle between the groups.

The agreement, known as an injunction, restricts the ability of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County to move homeless encampments—at least in theory. In legal filings earlier this year, attorneys representing several homeless people living in Sonoma County argued that local officials have found a way around the agreement by citing health emergencies and fire dangers as a pretense for moving encampments. Since May, they have moved at least seven large encampments. 

The two sides are now reportedly working on a deal to extend the injunction, which is currently set to expire on Dec. 31, into the next year.

Legal bickering aside, do local governments have an adequate plan to shelter the current and future people living on the streets? For better or worse, we’ll find out soon enough.

Ground Swell

Amid a nationwide protest movement, hundreds of Sonoma County residents took to the streets last summer to protest the killing of George Floyd, the latest Black man to be killed by police. 

Although the North Bay protests began in solidarity with protests around the nation, participants soon turned to local issues, calling into council meetings and supporting political campaigns in the fall.

When the cards fell following this November’s election, Sonoma County voters opted to strengthen oversight of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (Measure P), boost spending on a variety of mental health services (Measure O) and to elect a variety of new city council members, many of them with progressive bona fides.

More than a month after the election, many of those new council members have been sworn in and the county is working to enact Measure P and Measure O.

In the coming months, this new batch of activists will see whether local officials meet their expectations.

Will Carruthers
Will Carruthers is a news reporter for the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.
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