Monday’s Healdsburg City Council meeting agenda was long, and by far the most consequential item on the agenda was the last item: deciding how to move forward with Mayor Leah Gold’s soon-to-be-vacant council seat. Three options were on the table: to leave the seat vacant until a special election could be held; to make a short-term appointment to the seat, which would then be permanently filled by special election; or to appoint someone to the seat’s full remaining term of around two years. What resulted was a travesty of bureaucratic proportions.
Mayor Gold had recused herself from the decision-making after taking a few petty pot-shots at residents aggrieved over her tone-deafness weeks before. (She suggested that because they had submitted an internet petition calling for her resignation it was not “real,” apparently unaware that we are living in the twenty-first century and observing physical distancing.) But it was not the mayor’s melodramatic portrayal of herself as the victim of a malign minority that was most shocking — rather, it was the utter lack of leadership from the other councilmembers.
After receiving scores of emails and at least a dozen live comments lobbying the council to adopt option three — appointing someone to the full remainder of the term — the elected leaders of Healdsburg refused to lead.
Councilman Shaun McCaffery play-acted at being an elder statesman, pontificating on the virtues of electoral democracy. He repeatedly extolled the value in campaigning, going door to door and, he said with some self-satisfaction, sometimes even being invited inside to discuss local politics with voters.
It seemed to be entirely lost on McCaffery that campaigning is not leading, and we only need to look to the United States Congress — or the White House— for examples of inept leaders who managed to win. Oblivious to the fact that leaders are expected to make hard decisions without always being able to rely on the direct input of voters, McCaffery advocated for a special election.
Next up, Councilmembers Joe Naujokas and David Hagele voiced support for option three: a full appointment. Perhaps they know that a full appointment would provide stability and continuity on a council with a resigning mayor and three of its seats up for grabs in November. Perhaps it was the overwhelming support the third option had received from the public. Whatever their reasoning, they spoke in favor of addressing the current tensions facing Healdsburg and tackling the immediate work of the council by naming a two-year appointee.
Enter Vice Mayor Evelyn Mitchell. In an impressive display of kicking the can down the road, she argued for an option that was not on the agenda. It was something that had not been described by the Interim City Manager David Kiff when he provided an overview of the three options. Instead, she wanted to solicit applications and then decide whether the appointment would be a five-month or two-year appointment at some future time. In effect, she punted.
Mitchell expressed dismay over being put in a position to lead. “We don’t know, we just don’t know,” she lamented at one point in the debate, articulating her inability to use her best judgment to make a decision.
The unexpected suggestion from the vice mayor injected an air of uncertainty into the discussion. Naujokas wavered, appearing to change his mind in agreement with the vice mayor. Hagele stood firm, arguing that it would be confusing: how could they expect people to apply if the applicants weren’t sure whether they were signing up for a five-month or two-year commitment? That brought Naujokas back to the side of reason, at least temporarily.
The subsequent back-and-forth muddied the waters so badly that the councilmembers turned to Interim City Manager Kiff and asked for help. Kiff, who likely knows Robert’s Rules of Order by heart, suggested someone make a motion. But none of the councilmembers could recall what the finer points of Michelle’s position was, so convoluted was the discussion.
In the end, perhaps worn down by the absurdity of it all, Hagele begrudgingly consented to join Mitchell and Naujokas in deciding to not decide between options one, two, or three. McCaffrey apparently felt more comfortable following their lead, instead of standing his ground, and also decided to vote for the non-decision option, making the council’s passing of the buck unanimous.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the political theatre performed at Monday’s council meeting, it is that Healdsburg is in dire need of leaders who can read the room, take control of a situation and make tough decisions.
Over the coming months, the city council will be faced with plenty of tough decisions to make, including those relating to steering the local economy through the pandemic, a budget shortfall, a segregated school district, a lack of affordable housing, sustainable development, and the appointment of a city manager. Monday night, they only needed to pick one out of three available options. After ample public input and debate, all they could muster was to exclude one and avoid picking between the other two.
Britton Burdick is a former Healdsburg resident, currently living in Washington D.C.