Housing development and police oversight are among the issues up for debate in this year’s Santa Rosa City Council elections.
All told, nine candidates are running for four open seats on the seven-person council in the Nov. 8 election. With two longtime council members retiring and the city completing its transition to district elections, the election could significantly change the face of the council.
The most competitive race is in District 4, which includes a portion of downtown, as well as the Junior College and Fountaingrove neighborhoods to the north.
Fleming, who works as a clinical social worker by day, is endorsed by the Sonoma County Democratic Party, four current Santa Rosa City Council members and numerous labor unions and other elected officials.
Huang, a businessperson with an office downtown, lists endorsements from dozens of district residents, including many identified as downtown business owners, on his campaign website.
Sanders, a retired firefighter, has support from the public safety unions—including the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association and Sonoma County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association—business groups, among them the Sonoma County Alliance and Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, and two outgoing city councilmembers, John Sawyer and Tom Schwedhelm.
Shamsavari, a therapist and author, said in a forum last week that she is not seeking endorsements or taking campaign contributions in the race.
Campaign finance filings show that, in money terms, the race was fairly close as of late September. Fleming had raised $41,809.22, followed by Sanders with $38,613.77 and Huang just behind with $38,475.
Last week, the four candidates faced off in a virtual debate hosted by the Sonoma County League of Women Voters, a non-partisan group which promotes voting and civic involvement. In the debate, candidates were asked about downtown housing developments, their views about the controversial Chanate Road real estate development and oversight of the Santa Rosa Police Department.
The candidates were also asked for their thoughts about citizen oversight of the Santa Rosa Police Department. Last November, following public pressure during and after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the city council approved a three-year contract with the OIR Group, a Los Angeles-based company, to provide annual audits of the department’s actions.
The candidates all voiced support for police oversight generally, but differed on whether the city should go beyond hiring the current consultant.
“I’m all for police oversight. We’re doing that. OIR has every bodycam, every report that the police have, and let’s just see how that process works out,” Sanders said.
Huang said that the city needed to ensure that they “make sure that [the person doing oversight is] on the ranks of the officers and they have experience with the job… and it’s someone the council can trust.”
Fleming, who chairs the city council’s public safety subcommittee, voiced support for even greater oversight, involving community members rather than just an outside auditor.
“I think that the OIR Group is fine but it is, at the end of the day, mostly retired police officers and attorneys talking to police officers… I think it is a great start, but it is not what the people have asked for,” Fleming said. She cited Sonoma County voters’ support for Measure P, a 2020 ballot measure strengthening review of the Sheriff’s Office’s actions, as evidence of residents’ interest in greater law enforcement oversight.
Shamsavari said that she supports the oversight of police, but did not specify what it should look like.
Coming days before the five-year anniversary of the deadly and destructive Tubbs Fire, wildfire safety and housing affordability loomed in the background of the Oct. 6 candidates’ forum.
On housing, the candidates all spoke generally in support of downtown housing developments while talking tough on a controversial proposal near the center of District 4, a 71-acre Chanate Road property.
Four years ago, Sonoma County restarted its attempts to sell off the property after a hospital on the property was closed. However, the sale faced several delays, including a lawsuit from a neighborhood group concerned about a lack of transparency in the sale process and that building hundreds of homes on the property, which is only served by one road in and out, would present a significant risk to residents attempting to evacuate during a fire.
Last year, the county finally sold the land to a Nevada real estate developer, Eddie Haddad. Haddad’s company will need to win permitting approval from the city since the property is within city bounds. Clearly conscious of the neighbors’ concerns about the project, all four candidates pledged to put safety first if elected.
Sanders said the current status of the Chanate property was the result of a “failure of leadership on down the line.”
“A development that I can’t protect, that overwhelms the existing infrastructure and that is done without transparency is a non-starter for me,” Sanders said.
Huang, also voicing safety concerns, said that he would want to study how many people could currently safely evacuate the surrounding neighborhoods using Chanate Road. If the number using the road for evacuation is found to be already too great, Huang would support “very limited to zero development” on the property.
Shamsavari mentioned evacuation problems as well and proposed pushing the private developer to build housing for the elderly and a public park on the property, to be served by a city-funded courtesy bus.
Fleming, the incumbent, said that her experience on the council has given her the best understanding of the state-mandated environmental impact review process among the candidates.
“If there’s anything [discovered during the environmental review process] that doesn’t show that it’s safe, [the project] won’t get done. Period,” Fleming said. She added that she has talked to Haddad “numerous times,” telling him that “we don’t do things here the way that you do them in Nevada.”
Meanwhile, five candidates are competing in three other district races.
In District 2, which includes the southeast portion of the city, Mark Stapp, a Sonoma State University fundraising executive, is facing off against Mason Rossiter, a 20-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student.
The eastern end of the city, including Oakmont, will continue to be represented by Dianna MacDonald. She was appointed to the council earlier this year and is running unopposed in District 3.
Lastly, Jeff Okrepkie and Veronica “Roni” Jacobi are facing off in District 6, encompassing the northwestern corner of the city. Okrepkie serves on the city Planning Commission and is the founder of Coffey Strong, a Tubbs fire recovery nonprofit. Jacobi, who previously served on the council from 2006 to 2010, is an engineer and environmental advocate.
The League of Women Voters has also hosted virtual debates between candidates in other districts with competitive races. To view the recordings of those events, visit lwvsonoma.org.