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Grassroots Saga: A 25-Year-Old Mayor in Action

Synthetic turf but no neon wildnerness

Country Joe McDonaldCountry Joe McDonald

Country Joe McDonald. Circa 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

COTATI, Calif. – The mayor tamped tobacco down roughly in her pipe and sucked in a long, whistling drag. “If there’s one thing you’ll find out about us – me and Geoffrey and Stephen – it’s that each one of us is extremely egotistical, extremely self-confident,” Mayor Annette Lombardi, 25, said. “We believe, each of us in ourselves, that we are the most competent people we know. I don’t know anybody who’s as competent as I am, except maybe Geoffrey or Stephen.”

Cotati is one of those places you stumble into when you run out of gas or rides 50 miles north of San Francisco and find yourself hanging around for a while shooting pool and drinking beer with the local longhairs in the Tradewinds or, if it’s late enough, catching Country Joe McDonald at the rustic, funky Inn of the Beginning next door.

Sooner or later, whether it’s from the beer or the hang-loose cuisine of the Inn, you’re bound to make it to the john. And there among the usual literary efforts is the capsulated commentary of Cotati’s recent political history. “Laughlin, Dunham and Lombardi for City Council – Power to the People,” it says over the urinal. “Put a contract out on Salfen,” it says on the door. You know something has been happening in this little town of 1700 next to Sonoma State College in the gentle tawny hills of Northern California, but it’s a little hard to believe you’ve fallen into a secret Berkeley annex, when the guy next to you is playing Electro Dart on the wall with a little black box that causes an animated man to fling an electronic missile from one screen to another. This place is just too peaceful for a revolution.

Still, that’s what the regional press all the way to San Francisco has been hinting about Cotati ever since last April when Annette Lombardi, 25; Steve Laughlin, 24; and Geoffrey Dunham, 29; became the majority on the five-member Cotati City Council. A television reporter intoned about “the new guard in Cotati,” the story in a nearby country daily began its yarn about, “the youthful captors of the Cotati City Council,” and other press followed up with headlines about the “quiet revolution” and the “young takeover,” and the San Francisco Chronicle put it all together by calling it, “Cotati – Where the System Works. A Bridge Across the Generation Gap.” So the old gap’s been crossed again, eh, and right here at a yellow-flasher crossroads of the historic Redwood Highway.

“Bleechhh,” Geoffrey Dunham groaned, holding his substantial stomach and rolling over in his armchair. “Agghh, I just couldn’t even take that. Put down that we’re standing by with a demolition team.”

If Cotati has had a revolution, it is one begun out of self-defense. Back 10 or 15 years ago, when the center of town was hardly more than a general store and a firehouse, the residents of the scattered chicken farms and apple orchards hereabouts saw no more need for political action than to find some way to beat the price of Texas eggs. Named for an obscure Indian chief and drawing most of its property out of an old land grant to a rancher named Page, Cotati rested peacefully as an unincorporated community between the marketing center of Santa Rosa and the chicken-plucking capital of the world in Petaluma. But it was about that time when the city folks began spilling out of their glossy suburbs in Marin County to the south and moving steadily north like a glacier on skids. Behind them and on all sides, they left a moraine of cluttered subdivisions, town houses and four-lane asphalt snakes. When Texas chickens began putting out like there was no end in sight, even Petaluma began to feel the squeeze – so much so, that these days the former California poultry center now prides itself on a more contemporary image as the “Wrist-Wrestling Capital of the World.” Ahead of the suburbanites came the developers, hungry land speculators with one eye over their shoulder and one fistful of money always stretched out to help a needy farmer settle down to progress in the synthetic age.

Fellow named Rohnert owned a seed farm out on scruffy flats next to Cotati and decided to plant subdivisions instead. Cotati caught on maybe a little too late. The town did not incorporate until 1963, and by then it was only because the two-bedroom bath-and-a-half profusion of ranch-style Rohnert Park threatened to overwhelm its neighbor. It was all going so well and Sonoma County was coming out of its country phase so fast that the state and newly-prominent local citizens decided a college would help lend the place some tone. Only trouble was, the eager new wave of resident leaders in Santa Rosa wanted it there and their opposite numbers down in Petaluma thought it might do something to get them out of that chicken farmer image. So eventually, some planners in Sacramento just drew a line down the country between the two towns. The ideal spot turned out to be just a couple miles behind the six-sided intersection that Cotati claims as its only landmark.

Sonoma State College opened in 1966. A liberal arts campus with grey-blue windowless buildings and eight-foot redwood seedlings to shade the lawns, Sonoma State now has about 5000 students – something like four times the number of official Cotati citizens. But even its proudest graduates – the three new councilpeople among them – still refer to Sonoma State as “a resort college” or “Apathy U.”

The thing about Cotati, like too many other little towns in Northern California, is that when you get there, you have the feeling you better stay and look a while, because when you come back it won’t be the same. The town’s greatest natural resource may be the grey weathered redwood of lonely-looking old chicken houses that appear on almost every square plot of ground not yet over-whelmed by yellow skeletons of new houses. The old redwood also turns up in bookshelves and coffee tables, “antique” cabinets and rustic-painted wall-hangings.

Rohnert Park, and particularly a jammed nest of houses that its developer, Harold Heers dubbed “Holiday Park,” is spread around the town like a voracious amoeba, gulping and growing every day.

Downtown Cotati, or at least that part of it huddled around the main intersection that from the air looks like a giant peace sign, has so far changed less in materials than in style. Since the college opened up, a little collection of semi-hip business establishments like the Tradewinds and the Inn of the Beginning have emerged, all in a protective little square a few doors from each other. Annette Lombardi’s butterscotch-fronted Eeyore Bookstore occupies one side of that arrangement, just a door away from the ever-popular Tradewinds. These days, as if you could possibly miss it, you can find the Eeyore by asking nearly anybody in town for the location of “Tammany Hall.”

But Cotati still has more real estate offices than bars and a lot more neon than it needs. That in fact was what you might consider the Bunker Hill of the revolution some insist has happened in Cotati. It all began a year ago last spring over the erection of a 75-foot glowing rocking chair to lure customers for the “Lazy Me Motors.”

Even the old Cotati Planning Commission thought the rocking chair was a bit much. They proclaimed that it violated the city ordinance and ordered it taken down. The city council, on the other hand, was less perturbed by a businessman just trying to get his product across and proceeded to overturn the planning commission’s orders. Thus began Cotati’s first big petition drive, led in part by a robust little Italian woman whose family had owned the Lombardi Market in town for as long as nearly anybody could remember. About 150 people attended the town meeting on the subject.

“That sign and the city council’s taking over the planning commission really outraged a lot of people, including me,” Ms. Lombardi said. “I had attended council meetings before that and been frustrated by the fact that you weren’t allowed to speak, that you had to prove you lived in Cotati even if they would let you speak. So I continued to go to council meetings and make objections and so on. I was totally ignored, if I was allowed to speak at all. The developers and the realtors always had plenty of time to speak whether they lived in the city or not.

“So after all that frustration and talking to people who said I had a chance,” Ms. Lombardi said with a shrug, “I decided to run.” (The rocking chair, by the way, was moved down to Petaluma where even today it may be seen by those who marvel at such things.)

Steve Laughlin spent half his time growing up in Falls Church, Virginia, and the other half in nearby Santa Rosa. Scratch a little deeper than his over-the-ear collar length hair and the time-tamed leather jacket he usually wears, and you’ll find the dormant soul of one who once had an affection for SDS. Not, of course, at Sonoma State where he did graduate work and wrote his master’s thesis on the Cotati city government. Since by now a number of curious folks in Cotati have found it out, it may be added that he also fought a three-year battle against the draft peaking in the last month when he refused to step forward and accept induction. The case goes to court in the next few months and likely goes to the Cotati city council floor soon.

The third member of what one piece of graffiti in the Tradewinds’ men’s room called the “conspiracy,” is a walrus-shaped former editor of the Sonoma State student newspaper who grew up in Hollywood and used to own the Portobello West antique shop in Cotati. Geoffrey Dunham now resides on a 16-acre plot half-in and half-out of the city from which he admits jokingly to be a “slum landlord” over three other old houses he rents on the property. The grumble-faced dude shooting pool back at the Tradewinds made some comment about “dogshit acres” when he found out we were meeting the councilman up there, but it was obviously an unkind remark aimed at Dunham’s enormous St. Bernard puppy and not the city official’s book and album-strewn domicile.

Dunham, bald as Friar Tuck at 29, admits to being lured into the whole thing as a “giant tuna – the only fish known to bite on a bare hook.” City councilpeople are paid nothing but grief in Cotati.

The three knew each other and worked together on the student newspaper at Sonoma State. At first, they said, the trio formed a slate more to cut campaign costs than to pull off a coup of Cotati city government. But since they were friends to begin with, a political alliance forced no serious compromises on any of them. The trouble with politics in a small town like Cotati, though, is that it tends to be more like a social gang-bang than an exercise in the democratic process. If they voted at all, people tended to treat their ballot as a trophy for their nicest neighbor. When the three young people began working on a voter-registration drive, most of the town’s casual observers took it as some sort of college project. But in the two weeks they put into their registration drive before announcing their candidacy, the Laughlin, Lombardi and Dunham slate had succeeded in registering nearly 200 new voters. Some of the new voters came from random types associated with the college – full-time students and full-time almost students who under new state residency requirements were allowed to vote in Cotati. Undoubtedly, the new majority on the city council could not have gotten there without the aid of the “youth vote,” but by the time the campaign got underway, it was apparent that the slate’s attractiveness to the young had as much to do with allowing a life style their grandparents might have appreciated as it did with permitting a process they could relate to.

The slate’s antiquey-looking “voters handbill” with scrolled letters proclaiming the town’s “character” to be the central issue unfolded into a center-spread statement on the Laughlin, Lombardi and Dunham platform that emphasized creating a general plan for Cotati which would “retain the rural, smalltown character” of the town. The platform stood for better communications between citizens and city government, repair of the streets and improvement of the city’s leaky water system as a means to cut maintenance costs to the taxpayers. The platform also suggested the creation of convenient turnout spaces on the Redwood Highway to reduce the dangers to hitchhikers standing along the road, but what became the most controversial issue had little to do with age of the voters. The three candidates pointed at the woesome lack of park and playground space in the community – practically nil except for the wedges of lawn separating the three streets that collide in a radius around the flashing yellow light at the center of town. This, the platform said, should be converted entirely into a green plaza. The traffic, instead of whizzing right down the middle on the Redwood Highway, would go around the plaza in the manner of a European traffic circle. To their businessmen opponents, such blasphemy was hardly even worthy of comment – so unworthy, in fact, that there never was so much as one debate during the entire campaign.

“One of the older people running told me he thought we had so little chance that he was not even going to bother to campaign,” Ms. Lombardi said, smiling wickedly.

“If there was a coalition, uh, groups that got together,” Dunham said, “it was the younger people and the older people. The people who had been there the longest – the people who were here before it was incorporated and before the college was here, could see the way things were going and that even though we were young, our platform made sense.”

“Yeah,” Mayor Lombardi interrupted, “at first they didn’t like us because we were young, but after our publicity and when they talked to us, a lot of them changed their views. They felt even though we were young, at least we were not going to sell out the city like the previous people had done. Like Geoffrey says, it was the older people and the younger people. The middle-aged people didn’t like us at all. We went house to house and found a very warm reception with people over 50 and with people under 30, but in between . . .”

“. . . It was weak,” Dunham concluded.

To be honest about it, the three of them were drunkenly playing Electro Dart in the Tradewinds convinced they had made a good – losing – battle of it, when the final returns came in. Lombardi got 360 votes, Laughlin 323 and Dunham 311. The next nearest candidate polled a weak 270 votes.

* * *

As any politician knows, winning the election is only half of it. The real hassles start after you’re elected. If anybody in Cotati city government could be considered more of a newcomer to the town than two of the three new councilpeople, it is City Manager Paul Salfen. Salfen, a wiry, craggyfaced pipe smoker in his 50s who displays a model golf club and tee on his desk, had only been in Cotati a little over a year when the city had its “revolution.” He did, though, have a good deal of experience behind him, including jobs in Thornton, Colorado, and, more recently, a ways south of here down in Milpitas, California.

By his own estimation, Salfen took on the job in what he saw as a “nice, quiet country village.” He arrived prepared to use all his considerable administrative skills in helping the citizens of Cotati do what is best in modern municipal government. The citizens, or at least those on the old city council, seemed to trust him completely – so perfectly so that for a while residents laughed and called it “Salfen’s town.”

Well, come the first meeting of the new city council and the first problem that arose was that Salfen had made up name signs for everybody, each one saying “Councilman” – including that for Annette Lombardi. “That’s one reason we elected her mayor (a one-year term),” said Dunham. “It’s a sexless title.”

No sooner had the chauvinism question reared up and been slain, however, than City Manager Salfen was droning through a patient smile about a few routine matters such as that requiring the council to give its formal approval to a city improvement contract already issued.

Just north a few blocks of Cotati’s main crossroads is another intersection, this one with a flashing red light and two small traffic islands to aid cars making right turns. Salfen acted on his own before the election to dress up that situation a little. He ordered $3,420 worth of synthetic grass, Astro-turf, to cover the traffic islands.

“Jesus Christ, we were outraged!” said Mayor Lombardi. “Astro-turf! For that much much money, he could have covered those two islands with shag!”

Still, there was nothing the new council could do. The contract had already been made. Its Astro-turf traffic islands became Cotati’s second main tourist attraction. “We’re thinking of putting pink flamingos out there next,” Dunham said.

To the townsfolk already worried over what radical disasters might befall them from the election of three young people, the next escapade was a most alarming sign. When President Nixon ordered the mining of North Vietnamese harbors, young people around Cotati, like people all across the country, marched in the streets to protest. There at the front of the mob heading up the Redwood Highway for a symbolic gathering around the Astro-turf was three-fifths of the town’s government. Later, when the march spread on to highway 101, the new councilpeople were seen running back and forth between the lines of police and the lines of demonstrators like couriers.

Two days later, the new city officials attended their first official dinner for mayors and councilmen of Sonoma County.

“It was the old, ‘Hi, how are you, buy you a drink? Buy me a drink?’ numbers.” Mayor Lombardi explained.

“So Geoff y and I are sitting at the bar where all these fat cats are slapping each other on the back,” Laughlin said. “We’re exhausted from two days of being out in the hot sun and there we are drinking beer and watching the sheriff’s new reconnaissance helicopter on exhibition – the same one we’d seen hovering over us two days before.”

One should not be misled, however. The new Cotati council majority which had forged a crude alliance between the old and the young was, even by Salfen’s grudging recognition, “dedicated.” At the first council meeting after the North Vietnam minings, for example, the council took on a resolution condemning US aggression in Southeast Asia. When 75-year-old Mrs. Raymie Ahlstrom stood up with thundering protest that that was none of the city’s business, it looked as if the delicate coalition might be headed for hard times. But along came one of those happy compromises of political life. Mrs. Ahlstrom had really only shown up at that particular meeting in her official capacity as chairman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Poppy Day Committee. The Cotati City Council may have been the only local government body that month at least to pass both a resolution against the war and a resolution for Poppy Day – all in one two-hour meeting.

The new council also rapidly took on the job of decreasing the price of government. One of its first acts was to cut in half the $2600 budget item for conference and travel expenses of city officials. “. . . Trivial bullshit and bureaucratic garbage ought to be eliminated,” Mayor Lombardi proclaimed.

At the same time, the council sought to allow more participation in government. Not only could anybody who raised their hand be allowed to speak at council meetings – drunk or sober – but almost anybody who showed interest found themselves appointed to one or another of the city commissions. That included Mrs. Ahlstrom, who as the mother of an FBI agent, seemed well qualified to serve on the Police Advisory Committee created by the new majority on the city council.

Cotati has a five-man police force that up until recently cruised the town in a battered white Dodge pintoed with red primer to cover the dents. Even though Chief Olindo (Tony) Locarnini is only 28 himself, the police force always considered themselves a good deal more reliable and a good deal apart from the crowd down around the Tradewinds or the Inn. Even Sulfen admitted that police public relations in Cotati were dismal. In one of their first acts in office, the new council members suggested that it was an unnecessary burden to ask the officers to shell out $100 each for the Highway Patrol-style uniforms they wore. “We just thought it would be easier on them to buy blue jeans and work shirts or something,” Laughlin said. Chief Locarnini took that and the Police Advisory Committee a little hard. He refused to attend any of the meetings, and ordered his officers not to do so either.

“He hardly said a word when we called him in to talk about it,” Dunham recalled. “Just left the room and turned in his resignation later that night.” Two other officers also quit.

For the first months she was in office, Mayor Lombardi was making appointments to city commissions with a fervor that might have impressed Huey Long. She appointed a 25-year-old woman to the all-important Planning Commission and balanced that with the appointment of a 68-year-old man to the same commission. The council re-established a long-defunct Parks and Recreation Commission for the city – “doggone wasteful,” complained Frank Dolinsek, one of the two councilmembers who found themselves always in the minority – and named five people to serve on it, four of them young and three of them women. “One of them’s my sister-in-law,” Mayor Lombardi confessed, “but she’s good.”

The council even made a move to fire City Manager Salfen, but that was stalled when they found the city charter requires a four-fifths majority to do it.

Since Lombardi, Laughlin and Dunham were elected, Cotati has added a city plan that will at least frustrate the most determined of tacky developers until 1990, a new working project to solve the old problem of the leaky water system by making use of a town well, the first indexed and organized book of city ordinances and a new green and white police car which so far has no official city emblem on its door. That emblem question is still in debate over just what the city’s distinctive crossroads – long used as a Cotati symbol – looks like. On maps of the new city plan, and as seen from the air, it bears a sharp resemblance to a peace symbol.

But the most heated issue so far has been the same one that started it all more than a year ago. The neon rocking chair may have become a Petaluma problem, but just a ways up the Redwood Highway, a cheerful-looking pink-cheeked monster named Freddy Fast Gas illuminates a corner. Freddy Fast Gas and a montage of his neon relatives will have to go in Cotati if the new majority on the city council has its way. If Freddy’s doomed, then so is all the verbiage that covers the block-square Winter building owned by the second of the embattled council minority members, furnitureman Herb Winter.

“If Laughlin looks around, he’ll see that 99 percent of the signs in town would have to come down,” Winter fumed. “I been in business here 30 years and I got $4000 in my signs. That kid must have a friend who’s a sign painter, because he’ll be a very busy boy.”

Businessman Glen Nylander stood up at a Planning Commission meeting and accused Councilman Laughlin and Mayor Lombardi of using “gestapo tactics” in trying to push through the new ordianance that would eliminate any flashing, phosphorescent, moving or glossy signs not compatible with the design of a building and would restrict any interior signs which could be seen from the outside – to one foot. That would even take in the big neon tube martini glass that glows inside the Tradewinds’ window. At this writing, the sign issue was yet to be finally resolved, but the majority of the votes on the city council remained the same.

* * *

With all of that patronage and power floating in a little city like Cotati, it’s no wonder that the councilpeople get a little heady at times. “Oh yeah, it’s an ego trip,” admitted the mayor. “Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to walk just one block. We got people wanting us to rent houses for them or get their dogs out of the pound or close their street. But anytime I feel I’m getting too bad, I just hope that one of my friends will kick me in the ass. And usually they do.”

“We get it both ways,” Dunham said. “Part of the town thinks we’re being too radical and part of it thinks we’re not radical enough.”

If, for instance, you envision a little laxity toward the illegal weed in Cotati since the April elections, you must be cautioned by the Sonoma State student who at a rock performance near the plaza one day felt so fine he asked an off-duty cop he knew for some rolling papers. The Cotati officer obligingly said he’d get some. He returned from the station house a short time later and as the young man happily rolled a joint, pulled out his badge and placed him under arrest.

“All we could do was bail him out of jail,” groaned Dunham.

“You know,” Mayor Lombardi put in, “we tried to find out from the police what they do with all the dope they confiscate. They said they burn it. Never have seen that, though.”

“These kids got it all figured out, boy, right down to the gnat’s eyelash,” Councilman Winter, 47, is fond of telling reporters. “They took over Davis and Berkeley and now Cotati. It’s a nationwide machine and there’s more to it than meets the eye.”

Winter is only bitching, though. Even the Cotati Chamber of Commerce these days is dominated by younger people who own the little profusion of restaurants, leather shops and bars downtown. The chamber’s last meeting was even in the Inn of the Beginning – a catered affair in deference to the Inn’s informal attitude about food.

Those on the chamber and the council have no more personal contact with their counterparts in such places as Berkeley, Davis, Ann Arbor or Boulder than anyone else who reads the newspapers. Nor, they say, do they want any. They don’t even want more young residents in Cotati where what is happening is a basically conservative effort to preserve what is left of a good rural life.

“Fun? Is it fun?” Mayor Lombardi said, swinging her pipe in the air. “That’s like asking Evil Knievel if what he does is fun – Jump across the generation gap on your motorcycle!”

“I think we need more theatre,” Dunham complained.

“About all we can do,” Laughlin said, “is rewrite the laws so it will take them a long time to undo what we’ve done. We can’t stop developers here forever, but we can at least keep them honest.”

“Besides,” the mayor added, “I met a couple of honest rich people. We might all learn from this yet.”

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