Usual Suspects


Usual Suspects

Petaluma city officials may be running roughshod over the political process, but at least their antics make for great copy. On Monday, tree surgeon Douglas Daily and two others filed a 20-page lawsuit in Sonoma County Superior Court, claiming violations of the state’s Brown Act–which sets criteria for public meetings–by city officials. Daily is “totally outraged” with the alleged actions by Mayor Patty Hilligoss and Councilwomen Nancy Read, Mary Stompe, and Lori Shea–the four council members who support the unpopular proposal to swap city-owned Lafferty Ranch for $1.4 million and Moon Ranch at the foot of Sonoma Mountain to millionaire Peter Pfendler. Daily says things came to a head when inquiries by Citizens for Lafferty about concern over possible illegal secret meetings garnered “absolutely no response” from the council majority. The recent breakdown in negotiations came as a surprise to swap opponents. “We thought things were going along smoothly and then the council majority decided to reject the proposal,” says Daily, referring to last week’s closed-session meeting at which council members reneged on a tentative plan between City Manager John Sharer and attorneys for Lafferty swap foes. The plan called for the council to endorse allowing voters to decide the fate of the property in exchange for a promise that swap foes would not sue the city. Daily says that a worker at the Petaluma Marina complex observed Shea, Stompe, and Read meeting with former Councilman and state Assembly wannabe Brian Sobel–and possibly swap proponent Michael Davis–from his office window a day or two before a council meeting at which the mayor and the councilwomen suddenly voted to freeze the proposed swap for one year. (Hilligoss wasn’t observed at that meeting, but Citizens for Lafferty members contend she was part of a “serial meeting” and was apprised of the plan either before or after the meeting at the marina.) Sobel says the meeting he hosted at his office is “legal under the Brown Act” because it didn’t include a quorum of council members. He denies that the freeze was discussed, though acknowledging that those gathered did talk about Supervisor Jim Harberson‘s role in acquiring Moon Ranch for a county regional park. “This whole thing has lost all semblance of reality,” Sobel says of the controversial swap. “It’s become nothing more than a case of political one-upmanship.” . . . Still, Daily hopes the lawsuit will force city officials to reopen negotiations with Citizens for Lafferty and reverse their recent decision. But Councilwoman Lori Shea contends the suit has no basis. “There was no Brown Act violation,” she says angrily. “My meeting with the two other members [of the council] wasn’t any different than other meetings I’ve had,” she says. “No decision was made–we asked for an item to be placed on the agenda. If [Citizens for Lafferty] had such a strong case, then why would they try to make a deal,” Shea adds. “It sounds a bit like blackmail.” Shea calls the recently approved one-year freeze “the perfect opportunity to stand back and see what can be worked out in 14 months.” . . . Last week, Citizens for Lafferty garnered 3,000 signatures–several hundred more than are needed to place their initiative on the November ballot–after just three days. . . . Meanwhile, swap proponents are preparing to ask the city to endorse two other ballot initiatives filed last week. Those countermeasures have “interesting language,” says Daily. “Their [initiative] would supersede ours, even if we got a majority.” Those initiatives in support of the swap were crafted by Peter Pfendler’s lawyer, Matt Hudson, who cites client-attorney confidentiality when asked whether Pfendler is behind the measure. Swap opponents see the two ballot measures as a scheme to manipulate voters and are threatening a recall drive against majority council members. . . . On Monday, the swap supporters claimed to know nothing about the new initiatives, yet Hilligoss says that if the council wants to put them on the ballot, it will. The two men who filed the new measures–Donald A. Smith and Lee Snow–are refusing to say who is behind them. But swap foes say the two have connections to Give Us the Moon. Both Smith and Snow’s wife, Katha Hair, were listed as members of the Give Us the Moon Committee last fall. . . . All this hoopla is having a detrimental effect on Hilligoss’ popularity. The mayor drew a lukewarm reception from some 400 community members on Sunday at a Teen Talent Show benefit at the Petaluma Community Center. When she appeared on stage to pick raffle tickets, there was a conspicuous lack of applause. And when she struggled to grope her way through the curtains to make an exit, laughter could be heard over her plight.

From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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