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Veteran politician David Rabbitt set to helm Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

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Veteran politician David Rabbitt will step into his role as chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, guiding the county through its second year of recovery and rebuilding after the 2017 fires.

Rabbitt, a former architect and Petaluma city councilman, was elected to the board in 2010 to represent the southern end of the county, including Petaluma, Cotati, Penngrove, Two Rock, part of Rohnert Park and the unincorporated areas south of Sebastopol. He served as the board’s chair in 2013 and 2014, and will be tasked again this year with leading the five-member elected body that oversees the county government and its $1.69 billion budget.

Rabbitt, 58, described his decision-making process as data driven. The Petaluma resident for the past eight years has acted as a resolute fiscal conservative on the board, a theme he underscored when looking forward to the new year.

Rabbitt said balancing the budget, which is projected to see a $12.8 million year-end general fund shortfall by next fiscal year, will be the main policy discussion in 2019. Last year, supervisors were forced for the first time in recent years to dip into reserves to balance the books and earmark millions to deal with the fire recovery. Supervisors froze 56 vacant positions in December as an initial belt-tightening measure.

“Fire recovery is ongoing, and I think what’s true is in the second year out is that we’re not going to get the same (property tax) reimbursement rates and nothing is guaranteed,” he said. “We’re still not back to where we were and, meanwhile, expenses go up.”

Rabbitt said the new year provides an opportunity to evaluate the overall efficiency of the county and its myriad of departments.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to — really looking at how we’re doing things, why we’re doing it that way and is there a better way to do it going forward,” Rabbitt said.

During his tenure, he has focused on pension reform, acting as a trustee of the county’s retirement system.

He also has worked to secure funding for road improvements, holding leadership positions at multiple transit organizations, including the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit and the Sonoma County Transit Authority.

Rabbitt, a father of three adult children, was re-elected to the board after running uncontested this November.

“I love the job,” he said. “It’s fascinating. I love learning, and I have an opportunity to do that each and every day.”

Rabbitt assumes his role as chairman as the county continues to rebuild after losing more than 5,300 homes in the 2017 fires. He credited the county’s staff with devising creative options for new housing developments and said the county can “lead by example” in spurring new growth in other cities.

The county last year set a goal of building 30,000 new homes in the next five years. Rabbitt highlighted opportunities for transit-oriented housing along the SMART corridor.

In December, the Board of Supervisors adopted a broad recovery and resiliency blueprint, outlining priority measures such as creating a more comprehensive alert and warning system and bolstering vegetation management. It will receive quarterly progress reports and discuss early this year funding for a slate of measures.

“It’s about being more proactive than reactive,” Rabbitt said.

The county this year will continue the overhaul of its Department of Fire and Emergency Services, an embattled agency that was further scrutinized over its failure to issue more widespread alerts during the 2017 firestorm. Discussions about consolidating the firefighting agencies splayed across the region and rewriting the rules governing local ambulance service in Sonoma County also will continue.

Rabbitt said other major issues will include cannabis policy, as the initial yearlong zoning and use permits expire and neighborhood groups may seek to appeal them.

He said the county also will take up an update to policies for the estimated 45,000-plus septic systems in unincorporated areas, and he hopes to negotiate a longer-term contract with union employees.

Rabbitt takes the gavel from outgoing chairman James Gore, a former Obama administration official who helmed the county through the first year after the fires.

Bob Anderson, a Healdsburg resident who has been a conscientious observer of the board for decades, described Gore’s leadership style as more “spontaneous” than Rabbitt, but said both have successfully led the board and the county.

“As chair, people look to (Rabbitt) to provide more of a nuts-and-bolts approach, and he’s willing to tap the brakes every once in a while and make sure that they’re going at the right speed,” said Anderson, the former executive director of the United Winegrowers of Sonoma County. “Sometimes it’s going uphill and you’ve got to push harder, sometimes it’s flying down the hill. He’s able to have good sense of anticipating what’s going be around the next curve.”

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.