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Not So Fast

Recall election aims to oust St. Helena mayor Alan Galbraith

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PRETTY AS A PICTURE  Critics of Mayor Alan Glabraith say his pro-growth stance puts St. Helena at risk.
  • PRETTY AS A PICTURE Critics of Mayor Alan Glabraith say his pro-growth stance puts St. Helena at risk.

Concerned about rapid development in the small Napa County town, a group of St. Helena citizens has filed paperwork with the city clerk demanding a recall election to remove Mayor Alan Galbraith from office.

Galbraith has been criticized by a group of 25 St. Helena citizens for inadequately addressing concerns over a series of developments, both planned and in the works, that have unfolded over the past year.

Those developments include a proposed hotel development on city land, an attempted expansion of the Culinary Institute of America's student housing and an expansion of Beringer Vineyards' footprint in town, says Kathy Coldiron, one of the citizens seeking Galbraith's removal from office.

Another driver for the recall effort was a recent spike in water bills spearheaded by Galbraith, she says, and approved by the city council.

"I've lived here for 25 years," says Coldiron, "and what's happened in the last few months is unprecedented—this fast-track push on development with very little discussion."

Coldiron says that development issues were typically discussed over a series of meetings, but are now expedited. She says Galbraith has a tin ear to citizen concerns over water security and sewage issues that attend new development projects.

Public participation is a hallmark of the St. Helena civic style, says Coldiron. "Then there's usually some kind of compromise, not always, but at least you were able to be heard, and the pros and the cons were discussed.

"The last few months, there's been a very noticeable difference in the projects that are coming in— there's no long-term discussion, then approval and then shock."

Reached for comment by phone and email, Galbraith responded by sending the statement he issued when the recall effort was announced on Sept. 6.

"I do not welcome a recall effort," writes Galbraith. "If the voters are dissatisfied with my tenure as mayor, they have an opportunity to elect a new mayor in November 2018. To mount a recall campaign in the middle of my term will be extremely disruptive to the work of the city council, and, even if it succeeds, is unlikely to shorten my term by more than a few months. This does not make good sense and threatens to waste taxpayers' money on a special election."

The St. Helena City Council's majority view of the recall effort is to institute some sort of "mediation" process between unhappy citizens and Galbraith, who was elected in 2014 and whose term ends next fall.

Councilmember Mary Koberstein also responded to a request for comment from the Bohemian with a statement she issued when it was announced. She's opposed to the effort and says that "after eight months of council actions on a host of controversial issues, I recognize that these recall proponents, as well as other disparate interest groups, are sometimes disappointed by our process and the results."

Koberstein urged the city to hire a neutral mediator to sort out the competing issues, and notes that "the real cost of this recall will not be measured in dollars spent. The real cost is that we will undoubtedly further divide into opposing camps, and at a time when we face a multitude of decisions that require our collective and thoughtful attention."

Koberstein was joined by councilman Paul Dohring in calling for a mediator.

First-term St. Helena councilman Geoff Ellsworth, who ran for and won his seat largely out of his concern for overdevelopment and too many wineries in Napa County, says he's on board with the mediation plan but hasn't yet taken a position on the recall itself.

As a member of Citizens' Voice St. Helena in 2015, Ellsworth was one of five St. Helenans to sign a letter directed at the first-term mayor Galbraith, a former planning commissioner, announcing that the nonprofit had been formed out of a "concern that in a rush to raise revenue, the city is selling the town's rural character and our quality of life." The letter identifies numerous development projects in the hopper and notes that, among other pro-developer gestures, the city's proposed updated general plan lifted caps on hotel and restaurant development, and "as a result, there is a 70-room hotel under construction next to the Beringer winery."

To stop the flood of development, the letter continued, "will require a coalition of concerned citizens to speak up before it's too late."

Now that those concerned citizens are speaking up, is it too late?

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