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January 18-24, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Full Disclosure


By Peter Byrne

Do you dream about meeting a politician who can be trusted with, well, if not the future of the planet, maybe a spoonful of money? As the Democratic primary race for Marin-Southern Sonoma Sixth Assembly District creeps closer (it is June 6), I've been looking around the local sausage factories for just that candidate.

Five local pols have signed on for the race: Cynthia Murray, who is currently a Marin County supervisor; Marin Municipal Water District director Jared Huffman; Damon Connolly, a deputy attorney general and Dixie School trustee; John Alden, chair of the Marin Democratic Party; and Petaluma City Council member Pam Torliatt. They have all hired Mr. Smoothie-type political consultants to run their campaigns, and the winner will need to raise at least $300,000. Naturally, each candidate insists that there are no strings attached to large gifts of money.

Last July, I had tea with Torliatt in a Petaluma coffeehouse. Like any sane person running for public office in rich, white, liberal MarinOma, she wants to save the environment from the crazies in charge of it. She likes mass transport and knows how to make it work. She says Bush's No Child Left Behind is destroying the public school system. She opposes the shameful war in Iraq and public executions at San Quentin. She is pro-working class and supports same-sex marriage. She is 100 percent in favor of Los Angeles Senator Sheila Kuehl's bill to wipe out private health insurers in California and establish universal healthcare.

The vivacious Torliatt, 38, is a fourth generation Petaluman. She has served on the city council and the planning commission since she was 24. No doubt about it, she is energetic and smart. She understands the nitty-gritty of local government like nobody else on the council. (Bear in mind, that with the exceptions of Mayor David Glass and Torliatt, the Petaluma council is otherwise composed of nitwits.) Last July, Torliatt did not seem to be particularly informed about the specifics involved in governing the world's fifth largest economy. But if she studies Sacramento as hard as she has studied Petaluma, she could become a positive political force in California.

There was only one thing that bothered me. She said she would only release her income tax returns to the public if the other candidates did so, too. Not that she is wealthy, she insists. She makes less than $100,000 a year on commissions as a real estate broker for Meridian Commercial in Larkspur. Her most recent financial disclosure statement is remarkably thin, showing only a small investment in a rental property. She also owns some high-tech stock, which she has previously disclosed, she says.

In a second interview with Torliatt just last week, I suggested that raising corporate taxes and reassessing commercial property at market value are no-brainer solutions to reducing the state's $15 billion structural deficit. Torliatt declined to jump on board this bandwagon, saying only that "everything should be on the table." Not surprisingly, it is difficult to distinguish the candidate's take on the issues from the positions of her equally liberal opponents. She is angry, however, about the recently revealed $4.8 million cost overrun on Petaluma's downtown redevelopment project. (In July, she said the project was on budget.) Developer Basin Street Properties, Torliatt complains, has yet to pay its fair share of the skyrocketing tab.

Torliatt seemed taken aback when I mentioned that Basin Street Properties is a longtime client of her company, Meridian, which sells and leases acres of office and industrial space in Petaluma--space that is, of course, affected by city council actions. She noted that she has been on leave without pay from Meridian since last June. And she freely acknowledges that she accepts campaign contributions from persons and firms that do real estate business with the city council.

The owners of Foundry Wharf Properties, for instance, gave her assembly campaign $3,300. Pinnacle Homes, which is developing houses on the west side of Petaluma contributed $500. Petaluma Investment LP gave her $1,600. Developer R.D. Sonoma Inc. gave her $1,600. The latter two entities invest in real estate development on the east side of town.

Torliatt apparently sees nothing wrong with taking money from people and corporations that come before the city council--she has banked $150,000 in total campaign contributions so far--and she bristles at the notion that she could possibly be compromised by these relationships. She points out that Basin Street Properties, whose huge downtown project she helped to speed through the environmental review process, has not given her a farthing. She has conscientiously recused herself from voting on redevelopment issues that impact her former business client, Foundry Wharf owner K. Walter Haake.

But these revelations concern me.

People who want to manage billions of public dollars should not hesitate to reveal their tax returns.


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