Is election reform Carnacchi’s October surprise?  

By Laura Hagar Rush, Townsy Media, October 25, 2020

voter turnout in sebastopol

One of Councilmember Carnacchi's more controversial proposals would limit electioneering on the corner of highways 116 and 12.

At the Sebastopol City Council meeting on Oct. 20, Councilmember Michael Carnacchi proposed a sweeping raft of political reforms aimed at “increasing diversity” on the Sebastopol City Council. These included the following:

  • Initiative #1: Term limits for city council members. Carnacchi suggested an eight-year term limit, with the clock resetting after two years off the council.
  • Initiative #2: Election of the mayor by the people and establishment of an Office of the Mayor. (The Mayor is currently chosen from among the sitting councilmembers by a vote of the council.)
  • Initiative #3: Campaign finance legislation. Noting that Sebastopol has no limit for donations, Carnacchi proposed a maximum campaign donation amount of $100 per person and a maximum campaign spending limit of $10,000 per candidate per election cycle. He also suggested that donations could only come from people residing in Sebastopol.
  • Initiative #4: Raise the pay for city council members to $800 per month.
  • Initiative #5: Prohibit city council members and employees from making endorsements using their official titles.
  • Initiative #6: Limit in-person campaigning at main intersections to one day per election cycle (plus election day)
  • Initiative #7: Ranked choice voting. At the meeting, Carnacchi added a seventh initiative, which was not in the public packet, about ranked choice voting, an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots.

By the end of Carnacchi’s introduction, it was clear that what he meant by “diversity” was more a diversity of opinion or socio-economic diversity, as opposed to its more usual meaning of ethnic diversity, which his proposals do not address.

He described his objection to the current electoral system in Sebastopol this way:

“It’s what I call STP, which is the ‘same thirty people’” he said. “You know I’ve watched in the 27 years that I’ve had a business on Main Street and been participating with the Sebastopol Downtown Association, that it’s just about 30 people, if there are that many, that … are mobilized for any particular cause, and those people really haven’t changed.”

In addition, he described the result of this system as cliquish and closed. Regarding endorsements, for example, he said, “They really remind me of a high school popularity club … Throughout this election, you know, it’s ‘Look who’s part of our club.’ But more importantly I think what that tells is who’s not a member of that club.”

None of his fellow council members endorsed Carnacchi’s run for re-election. Nor did he seek their endorsements, as he is opposed on principle to endorsements that use a person’s title (such as, for example, “Patrick Slayter, Mayor of Sebastopol”).

Carnacchi, who’s still smarting from the council’s refusal in 2018 to appoint him as mayor, said the current system “creates division and emotional pain.”

Neysa Hinton said she sympathized.

“I felt a little bit of Michael’s pain,” she said. “I think that politics is definitely not for the weak at heart, and a mentor of mine, when I ran four years ago, told me that people line up on either side, but when the election is over we all have to move forward and work together.”

Awkward was the word of the hour

Though all on the council said they saw merit in at least some of Carnacchi’s proposals, all agreed it was awkward timing, coming just two weeks before a city council election.

Sitting councilmembers are not supposed to use their time during council meetings to score points in an upcoming election, and in one form or another all of the other councilmembers questioned the timing of this sweeping set of proposals.

In fact, over the next half an hour, the word “awkward” was used at least 10 times by different city councilmembers.

“You know, it’s an extremely awkward position as a council member who’s currently running for office to weigh in on this,” said Hinton, who, like Carnacchi, is running for re-election.  “I happen to believe in campaign finance reform … so there’s some items in here that I do agree with and would be interested in exploring. I just feel like the timing’s a bit off. I’m hoping that no matter how this works out, I think we all make Sebastopol our home, and these items could be brought up next year, sometime.”

During public comment, city council candidate Diana Rich and Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa accused Carnacchi of using his platform as a city councilmember to do some last-minute electioneering.

“This really seems to me like posturing right before an election,” Figueroa said. “Why were these proposals not before us four months ago and not right before the election?”

“Not all of us have a city council seat to use as a platform for our election efforts,” Rich said.

Regarding the substance of his initiatives, she said, “We are all out there trying to get our message to the community in any way that we can. I will tell you that as a candidate, one of the biggest issues that I’ve heard from everyone is communication. ‘Get me information, share with me, engage me.’ That’s what they want. All of these provisions, they’re about limiting engagement, limiting communication, and so I don’t approve of those and I don’t buy into it … I think this is a solution in search of a problem. ”

Two other speakers, David Cary and Kyle (last name unknown) said they appreciated Carnacchi’s proposals.

Cary thanked Carnacchi for bringing these proposals to the council. Though he dismissed some of them as “bandaid solutions,” he encouraged the city council to seriously consider “the adoption of ranked choice voting, particularly multi-winner ranked choice voting that insures proportional representation. The current method of election we have is, by design, exclusionary. It clashes with the Sebastopol value of being inclusive.”

Carnacchi dismissed the claim that his election reform proposals were just election posturing and said he was bringing these issues forward at this time because he wasn’t sure he’d still be on the council after the election.

Councilmember Sarah Gurney pointed out that he could have waited until the Nov. 17 council meeting, because even if he loses, he still has to serve two more months until the winners of the election take over in January.

She went so far as to call the timing “unethical.”

“Either this proposal should have been agendized way earlier in this year so we could have seen what parts of it might have been of interest and workable, or it should have been on the agenda after this election, because to me this seems like really clear campaigning from a public table with a public mic,” Gurney said.

And that’s when things got nasty

Carnacchi, clearly frustrated by the council’s reluctance to discuss the substance of his proposals, lit into Councilmember Gurney, who has served for 16 years on the council.

“I think that Councilmember Gurney saying that it was unethical was a bit of an overreach because that has nothing to do with it. I mean what have we got here, 25 participants?” he said referring to the number of people listening on Zoom. “And everybody I know has already voted. I mean what do I stand to gain from this? Boy, this is really stupid.”

Then, after comparing Gurney to the long-serving Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Carnacchi suggested that Gurney was the one with something to gain by putting off a discussion of his proposals.

“Look who’s talking,” he said. “You’re kind of the reason why I brought this because you need to go. You need to get off the council; you need to make room for somebody else.”

“Michael,” Hinton said, interrupting him several times from her square opposite him on Zoom. “Michael.”

“Okay, I’m done,” he said.

Then Hinton came to his defense.

“I want to also say that Michael’s been talking about these items for as long as I’ve known him … The timing is very bad and it’s really awkward but, Michael, I will publicly say that I know you believe these items. I know he didn’t bring them forward now because of some trying to take advantage … you’ve been talking to me about some of these for at least two years so I want to throw that out there too … I want to say that publicly I think they are items that we — or whoever — should take up in the future. I do appreciate them coming forth.”

For her part, Gurney said that during her long tenure on the council she’d never been insulted as she had that evening.

“I would prefer that we hold our office with some dignity,” she said. “Without inappropriate name calling. We sign a code of conduct each year. We need to follow it.”

There was no move to agendize a discussion of electoral reform for a future meeting.