By Chelsea Kurnick
On June 1, in the early days of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, both Mill Valley and Healdsburg held City Council meetings streamed online. At each meeting, the towns’ mayors were asked questions inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and recent protests against police brutality.
Mill Valley Mayor Sashi McEntee and Healdsburg Mayor Leah Gold’s answers disappointed and angered residents of both towns, prompting online recall petitions, letters from constituents and protests.
Tonight, in response to the criticisms, both towns’ governing councils are scheduled to discuss racism and possible police reforms.
Healdsburg’s City Council meeting begins tonight at 6pm. Information about how to view the meeting is available on page 6 of the meeting agenda. Healdsburg police will give a presentation about the department’s use-of-force policies towards the end of the meeting.
Mill Valley’s City Council meeting starts at 5:30pm online. The council will devote the entire meeting to a “Community Discussion Regarding Black Lives Matter and Development of a City Action Plan to Address Racial Injustice and Inequities in Mill Valley.” Public comment must be received by 4pm.
In Mill Valley, the controversy began when Mayor Sashi McEntee dismissed a question submitted by a constituent wondering, “What is Mill Valley doing to show that Black lives matter?”
Mayor Sashi McEntee replied, “Okay, thank you very much … . It is a Council policy that we do not take action on issues that are not of immediate local importance, but I do appreciate hearing everyone’s comments.”
The policy she referred to is California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, which guarantees the public’s right to comment at meetings of local legislative bodies and somewhat limits the council’s responses to the public.
On the same night in Healdsburg, Councilmember Joe Naujokas asked his fellow council members to schedule a discussion about police use of force in Healdsburg and how the elected leaders of city government can lead their community in having difficult conversations about the town’s relationship to police.
Mayor Leah Gold replied to Naujokas, “My reaction to that is we don’t have that particular problem in Healdsburg, because we have a very good police chief who is on top of these issues and trains his staff in appropriate conflict-resolution methods. To me … it’s a solution looking for a problem …”
After further conversation, the Healdsburg City Council failed to add the topic to an upcoming agenda and moved on.
Naujokas said he was “absolutely surprised” by fellow councilmembers’ reactions. During the meeting, he told the Council, “I think, if anything, it would be a way for us to highlight the fantastic work that our [Police Department] is doing and to quell any concerns from our public.”
Many Mill Valley and Healdsburg residents were shocked by their respective mayor’s responses, hearing both as assertions that their towns don’t have problems with racism.
In the weeks since the June 1 meetings, criticism of their original statements has continued, despite attempts by both mayors to address the issue at public protests. At the time this article was published, a petition calling for Mayor Gold’s resignation had 1,845 signatures and a petition calling for Mayor McEntee’s resignation had 8,694 signatures.
Both towns are similar in size and majority white—Mill Valley’s population is approximately 83 percent white and Healdsburg’s is approximately 62 percent white. In Healdsburg, more than one-third of the population is Latinx. In Mill Valley, less than eight percent of the population is Latinx. Both towns have fewer than one percent Black residents.
Studies show that while populations of color in the North Bay are growing, economic inequalities persist.
Between 2010 and 2014, Sonoma County’s total population grew seven percent; however, its population of people of color grew by 46 percent. During the same period, Marin County’s total population grew 4 percent, while the number of people of color grew by 34 percent.
In 2014, National Equity Atlas created an Equity Profile that looked at economic disparity along racial lines in the Bay Area’s nine counties. This study found that, with racial equity, Latinx Bay Area residents would see their average annual income increase by 131 percent and Black residents would see a 102-percent increase.
In a speech at a June 4 protest in Mill Valley, McEntee acknowledged that she had used a “poor choice of words,” but reiterated that “we do have a council policy that we don’t take up national issues.”
In an impassioned speech in response to McEntee’s comments caught on video by Lorenzo Morotti of Marin Independent Journal, Mill Valley resident Monica Morant said, “If we continued to follow rules and laws, I would still be sitting at the back of the bus.”
During Morant’s speech, someone in the crowd called for McEntee to step down. Morant replied, “I’m not calling for resignation, I want action … I want all of us to work on this, [to] look at each other.”
At a June 11 protest in Healdsburg, a crowd of about 250 people gathered by 6:30pm. Chants of “Mayor Gold resign now” reverberated loudly as various Healdsburg residents of color spoke to Gold and the council. Gold said that the people who voted for her were not at the protest and that they still support her.
In preparation for the event, two Latinx Healdsburg residents, Lupe Lopez and Cristal Perez, invited Black and Indigenous people of color living in Healdsburg to share their experiences of racism in writing. Over 90 of these stories of racism were then displayed on notecards in Healdsburg Plaza’s gazebo for the public to read before and during the June 11 protest.
While 36 of the stories centered around school and childhood experiences, at least 50 of the notecards described experiences that took place outside of school. These experiences ranged from stories of workplace discrimination to discriminatory service at restaurants to housing and healthcare experiences. Eight stories described police encounters in which residents say they were racially profiled by officers and/or the people who called the police on them.
Gold told the Bohemian, “It makes me feel very sad to read about their experiences, of course. They’re all talking about hurtful things and I think mainly most of them seem to have written about things that happened growing up and as young people in school.”
Lopez and Perez said that, while they don’t know of any recent cases of police use-of-force in Healdsburg, the local police department should be speaking out about this nationwide issue and be taking action to make sure that there’s justice for the lives of all Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color taken at the hands of police.
“We have to remember that it’s not only about justice for the lives lost, but a fight for change and reform of a system that protects those in uniform rather than those without one,” they said.