Last week, the weedy little town of Cotati attracted national attention, thanks to three of its police officers who were caught on video kicking in a citizen’s door and tasing one of the three residents. It has gone viral on YouTube, with over 250,000 hits.
A casual survey of Facebook comments to the story shows that 60% think it demonstrates pure fascism, 30% think the residents deserved to be tased, and another 10% are withholding judgment since the entire story isn’t clear. I’m pretty much in the latter camp because a lot of questions remain.
What is clear is the way Cotati city staff has paralyzed this little town economically for years. The city’s various shopping centers set a county record for vacancies, from 40% – 70%. Every year, city staff claims that attracting new business is a top priority. But the city imposes anti-business regulations that set new standards for hostility. Recently, a local deli owner wanted a permit to build a small patio outside his door. Months after he applied, a design review committee told him they would make an exception to their rule and allow him to plant three California poppies.
Any private sector employee who micro-managed this way would be promptly sacked. But in Cotati, anti-productivity is rewarded. Seven Cotati staffers have a combined salary/benefit package that totals $1,171,994. They are responsible for a city of 6,800 and City Hall is closed Fridays. City Manager Dianne Thompson receives $213,577 in salary and benefits, plus a leased Prius. To help her manage a total of 32 employees, including ten police officers and five dispatchers, she has a $237,000 Police Chief. She also has a $169,000 Finance Director, a $177,000 Public Works Director, a $138,000 Community Development Director, a $133,000 Assistant City Manager, and a $105,000 Deputy City Clerk. Not counting the police department, these five assistants supervise a total of 11 workers who actually drive trucks, fill potholes, and send out sewer bills.
Cotati’s most egregious mistake was spending well over a million dollars to create a Downtown Specific Plan that would, among other things, revitalize a blighted four-block stretch of downtown. To implement this pipe dream, it would cost $73 million, which they hoped would appear as Federal grants. While the city waited for Stimulus money that never came, they made it nearly impossible for any local business to build anything new in the area.
Oliver’s Market planned to build an $18 million retail complex on Old Redwood Highway that would have been a major improvement to the area. The city’s reaction? After Oliver’s spent nearly $4 million on land and plans, the city proposed to turn this five-lane street two-lane byway, with two roundabouts, only 600 feet apart. The owners walked away from their $18 million project, ensuring that this high-visibility location will be a weedlot for years.
Most recently, the city manager attempted to award a 15-year garbage contract to Redwood Empire Disposal, and excluded rival bidders from the process. Perhaps she was too busy managing all her managers to review multiple bids. At least one local company that was interested in bidding was snubbed, and has collected signatures for a ballot referendum that could cause a civic black eye. The signatures were verified by the Registrar of Voters, but the $105,000 Deputy City Clerk has just declared their petition is invalid because of a technicality.
All this leads to three questions: How indifferent can a city manager be to the citizens who pay her salary? How long will the city council rubberstamp her decisions? Most importantly, when will the voters notice?