Concerned about rapid development in the small Napa County town, a group of St. Helena citizens has filed paperwork with the city clerk demanding a recall election to remove Mayor Alan Galbraith from office.
Galbraith has been criticized by a group of 25 St. Helena citizens for inadequately addressing concerns over a series of developments, both planned and in the works, that have unfolded over the past year.
Those developments include a proposed hotel development on city land, an attempted expansion of the Culinary Institute of America’s student housing and an expansion of Beringer Vineyards’ footprint in town, says Kathy Coldiron, one of the citizens seeking Galbraith’s removal from office.
Another driver for the recall effort was a recent spike in water bills spearheaded by Galbraith, she says, and approved by the city council.
“I’ve lived here for 25 years,” says Coldiron, “and what’s happened in the last few months is unprecedented—this fast-track push on development with very little discussion.”
Coldiron says that development issues were typically discussed over a series of meetings, but are now expedited. She says Galbraith has a tin ear to citizen concerns over water security and sewage issues that attend new development projects.
Public participation is a hallmark of the St. Helena civic style, says Coldiron. “Then there’s usually some kind of compromise, not always, but at least you were able to be heard, and the pros and the cons were discussed.
“The last few months, there’s been a very noticeable difference in the projects that are coming in— there’s no long-term discussion, then approval and then shock.”
Reached for comment by phone and email, Galbraith responded by sending the statement he issued when the recall effort was announced on Sept. 6.
“I do not welcome a recall effort,” writes Galbraith. “If the voters are dissatisfied with my tenure as mayor, they have an opportunity to elect a new mayor in November 2018. To mount a recall campaign in the middle of my term will be extremely disruptive to the work of the city council, and, even if it succeeds, is unlikely to shorten my term by more than a few months. This does not make good sense and threatens to waste taxpayers’ money on a special election.”
The St. Helena City Council’s majority view of the recall effort is to institute some sort of “mediation” process between unhappy citizens and Galbraith, who was elected in 2014 and whose term ends next fall.
Councilmember Mary Koberstein also responded to a request for comment from the Bohemian with a statement she issued when it was announced. She’s opposed to the effort and says that “after eight months of council actions on a host of controversial issues, I recognize that these recall proponents, as well as other disparate interest groups, are sometimes disappointed by our process and the results.”
Koberstein urged the city to hire a neutral mediator to sort out the competing issues, and notes that “the real cost of this recall will not be measured in dollars spent. The real cost is that we will undoubtedly further divide into opposing camps, and at a time when we face a multitude of decisions that require our collective and thoughtful attention.”
Koberstein was joined by councilman Paul Dohring in calling for a mediator.
First-term St. Helena councilman Geoff Ellsworth, who ran for and won his seat largely out of his concern for overdevelopment and too many wineries in Napa County, says he’s on board with the mediation plan but hasn’t yet taken a position on the recall itself.
As a member of Citizens’ Voice St. Helena in 2015, Ellsworth was one of five St. Helenans to sign a letter directed at the first-term mayor Galbraith, a former planning commissioner, announcing that the nonprofit had been formed out of a “concern that in a rush to raise revenue, the city is selling the town’s rural character and our quality of life.” The letter identifies numerous development projects in the hopper and notes that, among other pro-developer gestures, the city’s proposed updated general plan lifted caps on hotel and restaurant development, and “as a result, there is a 70-room hotel under construction next to the Beringer winery.”
To stop the flood of development, the letter continued, “will require a coalition of concerned citizens to speak up before it’s too late.”
Now that those concerned citizens are speaking up, is it too late?
Ellsworth says he left Citizens’ Voice when he was elected to the city council in 2016, and now indicates that the city, led by Galbraith, offered a pro-development posture to keep the city’s tax revenues flowing, without much of a long-term strategy in place to manage any unforeseen consequences.
“What I see is that, in perhaps looking for outside solutions, the day-to-day issues here have been neglected,” Ellsworth says.
Those day-to-day issues include strains on the city’s water and sewage systems and a chronic lack of affordable housing in a town that’s now building hotels for deep-pocketed wine tourists.
Ellsworth says he’s been talking with civic leaders outside of Napa County, in Healdsburg and the city of Sonoma, boutique towns facing similar development pressures driven largely by wine tourism. “This is an issue that probably we should have seen coming and started to address earlier, but I think we can still do it,” he says.
The particulars of tiny
St. Helena, he says, don’t support large corporate wine centers and big hotels. There’s a pair of two-lane roads leading into and out of town, “and if we don’t have more road space—and I don’t want more road space—that’s a limiting factor. For years, we’ve tried to keep this as a small agricultural-centric area.
“Regional development and large-scale projects,” he adds, “should go to places that have the infrastructure to handle that influx of people.” Places like the city of Napa or Vallejo, he says. “We can protect the delicate areas and allow for some growth and balanced development. St. Helena can’t handle the capacity that the city of Napa can.”
Ellsworth cites the phenomenon of “urbanization by over-visitation” as a trend that needs to be managed as it descends on quaint localities like St. Helena.
In opposing the recall effort, Ellsworth was joined by Susan Kenward of Citizens’ Voice who tells the Bohemian via email that she’s opposed to the recall effort, too, and instead supports a mediation plan between Galbraith and his critics. Speaking for herself and not the organization, which hasn’t yet met to discuss the recall effort, Kenward says, “I think both Mary [Koberstein] and Paul [Dohring] are correct in that mediation is always the best idea. Everyone needs to be heard and their issues validated.”
According to Galbraith, a successful recall campaign would shorten his term by only a few months, raising the specter that the effort is a waste of time and money, since it would take place mere months before he is up for re-election. The city clerk has to certify the initial request for a recall election petition, and then the group has to collect about 850 signatures to trigger an election.
Coldiron says shaving any time off of Galbraith’s term could serve to stem the tide of development, or at least give pause to some of the proposals.
Given the pace of proposed projects and approvals and what’s perceived as Galbraith’s pro-development stance, even a few months might make a difference, she says, if Galbraith can be removed from office by next summer.
In the meantime, Ellsworth says he’ll continue to listen and seek compromise, short of removing Galbraith from office. In his eight months on the council, he says, “developing patience for listening has been the most important thing—learning to listen so you can get as much detail and facts to come to some balance where you are trying to listen to both sides.”
The problem in St. Helena, says Coldiron, is that only one side has been represented of late: the pro-development side.
That dynamic was in full effect, she says, in recent discussions over a property next to the city library that’s owned by the city and has been the subject of intense speculation. “Over the past few years, different ideas have come up and not been resolved—should it be a community center, a hotel, open space? As far as we can see, [Galbraith] is for the hotel.”
In his statement opposing the recall effort, Galbraith insists he’s not in the pocket of big developers and is motivated only by his concern for the long-term fiscal health of St. Helena.
“There will always be differences of opinion over major policy decisions,” he writes, “but for as long as I have been a public servant here in St. Helena, I have sought to contribute my experience and perspective in ways that serve the long-term interest of the community as a whole.”