Newsletter: The strange saga of Santa Rosa’s vacant City Council seat

A cyclist biking through Santa Rosa, Calif.
A cyclist rides through Santa Rosa, Calif., during an Ironman competition.
(Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Jan. 10, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

It’s hard to think of a more locally oriented job than serving on a city council, which is why it presented a problem when a member of Santa Rosa’s governing body appeared to have taken up residence in Ecuador.

“Council member Combs, are you still with us? I think I heard her drop off the line,” another member of the Santa Rosa City Council could be heard saying during a November meeting.


Julie Combs, the council member in question, had called in to the North Bay City Council meeting from her second home in the Andes, and the patchy transcontinental phone connection was presenting some problems.

It was a situation that KGO, a local TV station, described as “unprecedented, not to mention slightly bizarre.”

Combs, a seven-year member of the council, was now splitting her time between Sonoma County and Cuenca, Ecuador. She’d been physically absent from several meetings, and her colleagues weren’t happy. Her split residency was “drawing sharp questions about her ability to fulfill her duties after her absence from City Hall contributed to the delay of one measure before the council and prevented her from voting on a second issue,” as the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported in mid-November.

In a post on her campaign Facebook page, Combs said she was still a Santa Rosa resident and attributed her time to Ecuador to family medical and financial issues. She resigned the next week, leaving with a year left in her term. Instead of a potentially costly special election, the remaining six members of the council decided to appoint her replacement from an open pool of applicants.

On Tuesday, the council set about interviewing the 19 potential candidates during a marathon 11-hour meeting at City Hall.

Now, here’s where things get even stranger. After trudging through 30-minute interviews with each candidate, the council held a series of elimination votes. By the fourth round, the field had been narrowed to two candidates — both women, both with an equal number of votes.

Choosing to appoint either Karen Weeks, a city Planning Commission vice chairwoman, or Jacquelynne Ocaña, who runs a small business as a private fiduciary, would help correct the gender imbalance on the council, which now had only one woman in its ranks with Combs gone. And Ocaña’s appointment could have made local history, with her being the first Latina to serve on the council in a city that’s nearly 30% Latino.

So after all that, how did the Santa Rosa City Council end the night with a man appointed its newest member?

After a fifth round of voting again deadlocked on Weeks and Ocaña, the possibility of a special election was briefly discussed, then shot down for logistical reasons.

Then, with the council unable to decide between the two female finalists, two male members suggested that the group return to the application of Dick Dowd, a retired builder and veteran of the local public utilities board. Despite having been previously eliminated, Dowd was seen as a potential consensus alternative.

[See also: “Split at Santa Rosa City Hall over two women candidates led to selection of Dowd as councilman” in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat]

After some discussion, a motion to have Dowd fill the seat passed near unanimously. The lone opposing vote was cast by Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming, who also happens to be the only remaining woman on the council.

I spoke with Ocaña by phone on Wednesday. “I think that most of us were just blown away by what had actually transpired in front of us,” she said. She is a political newcomer but serves on the board of Legal Aid of Sonoma County and does elder justice advocacy work in the community. She said she saw Tuesday’s meeting as a “a microcosm of what’s going on in our nation right now.”

“Progressive women and people of color are consistently being excluded from positions of leadership because of a lack of so-called experience,” she said, adding that that focus on experience “places less importance on life experience and education, and more importance on having already had access to institutions.”

Dowd, who served for 25 years on the utilities board, will be sworn in next Tuesday to fill the remaining 11 months of Combs’ term on the council.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

President Trump and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, enemies in public, are quietly working out a deal on homelessness. Senior Trump administration officials have made quiet but significant progress toward a potential deal with Los Angeles officials that would provide federal funds and land to help shelter the city‘s and county’s growing homeless population. The positive tone, much of it behind the scenes, comes as a sharp contrast to Trump’s bellicose anti-California rhetoric at political rallies and on Twitter. Los Angeles Times

California could become the first state to sell its own brand of generic prescription drugs in an effort to drive down rising healthcare costs under a proposal Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to unveil in his proposed state budget Friday. Los Angeles Times


Mayor Garcetti endorsed Joe Biden for president. Garcetti will be one of Biden’s highest-profile supporters in California’s March 3 primary, but the endorsement is unlikely to have any practical impact on the highly competitive race. Dianne Feinstein, the state’s senior U.S. senator, is also supporting Biden. Los Angeles Times

More than 35% of people who filed paperwork to run for L.A. City Council or the school board did not make it past the signature-gathering process. That’s a greater share of the candidate pool than in any of the city’s last four regular and special elections. Los Angeles Times

L.A.'s booming tech scene gets its own publication to cover it, with investment from a number of Los Angeles venture capital firms, companies and business leaders. Los Angeles Times

Two L.A. radio stations, blasting reggaeton, wage a fierce battle for a growing young audience. Mega 96.3, famed for its annual Calibash concert, was long the only bilingual “Latin urban” station in L.A. But newcomer Cali 93.9 poses a threat to its supremacy. Los Angeles Times

Eddie One, a former on-air personality at Mega 96.3 who jumped to new competitor Cali 93.9
Eddie One, a former on-air personality at Mega 96.3 who jumped to new competitor Cali 93.9.

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The U.S. side of a binational garden was bulldozed Wednesday by federal authorities. It was planted more than 10 years ago on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. San Diego Union-Tribune


With a House vote to limit Trump’s military actions against Iran, Congress took its latest stab at reaffirming its constitutional authority to declare war. The long-standing power struggle between the executive and legislative branches has only grown murkier as the nature of global conflicts has changed. Los Angeles Times

California First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom is signaling a more activist role in policy issues with the launch of a women’s leadership-focused nonprofit. Politico

A state assembly bill would let new homeless shelters and affordable housing bypass a key environmental law to speed up construction. Adhering to the landmark California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, often necessitates a time-consuming and costly process before projects can move forward. Los Angeles Times

Chesa Boudin has been sworn in as San Francisco’s new district attorney. The ceremony included a surprise “appearance” from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who recorded a video message that played on the theater’s big screen. San Francisco Chronicle

Paso Robles leaders have begun the processing of reversing their tattoo parlor ban. The city hasn’t allowed tattoo parlors since 1994. San Luis Obispo Tribune


Trump wants to exempt some pipelines and highways from environmental review, alarming climate activists. The proposed revision of the federal environmental review process would fast-track the construction of some infrastructure projects. Los Angeles Times

The Bay Area’s coming “king tides” (extra-high tides) offer a hint of what rising sea levels look like. “During king tides exacerbated by warm water or falling rain, low points at Piers 3 and 14 routinely see water splash up onto public walkways, sometimes spilling into the Embarcadero roadway as well.” San Francisco Chronicle


Why are so many Sacramento restaurants closing? Several longtime spots have shut their doors in recent weeks. CBS Sacramento

In other Sacramento news, the capital is launching its own film office to increase production and support local crews. The idea for the office was fostered by the attention Sacramento received from being the location and setting for the 2017 film “Lady Bird.” Sacramento Business Journal

Did you misplace a loved one’s ashes in Modesto? The Stanislaus County coroner’s office is looking for someone to claim a remains-filled red metallic urn recently found “not near any particular grave site” at a local cemetery. Modesto Bee


Los Angeles: sunny, 68. San Diego: sunny, 66. San Francisco: sunny, 54. San Jose: sunny, 60. Sacramento: partly sunny, 53. More weather is here.


“California has for a long time been seen as the Valhalla of far-flung dreams. ... California is also, however, the site of real people’s homes. Real people’s lives. ... This schism — between what California represents in popular imagination and what it is, what it means to live there, to be from there — means Californians collide constantly with the rupture of existence.” — John Freeman

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.