Fairfax, Californiaís Town Council: The Green Party Majority
by Mimi Newton
On November 3, 2009, the Town of Fairfax, California became the fourth city in U.S. history to have a Green majority in local government. Not surprisingly to many, two of the three cities that had earlier garnered Green Party majorities were also California cities: Arcata (1996-1998) and Sebastaol (2000-2006). The other was New Paltz, New York (2003-2004).
In 2009, Pam Hartwell-Herrero became the third Green Party member on Fairfaxís five-person Town Council, joining fellow greens Lew Tremaine (now Mayor of Fairfax) and Larry Bragman, who had both been reelected for these positions in 2007. The other two Fairfax council members, David Weinsoff and John Reed, are registered Democrats.
A lifelong Green might naturally regard the election of a Green Party majority on the town council as quite an accomplishment. But that the voters of Fairfax would share the progressive values of the Party is not surprising.
The Town of Fairfax, California is a little less than ten square miles in size, with a population of approximately 7000. Located in idyllic Marin County, the town was initially settled by non-indigenous peoples in the mid-1800s. (Evidence of the indigenous peoplesí earlier habitation of the area may still be found throughout the town.) In the 1960s and í70s, so the legend goes, hippies from San Francisco ìdiscoveredî the little town, and many moved in permanently. Over the years, Fairfax has morphed into a quaint, friendly, progressive, yet down-to-earth little hamlet.
Fairfax is located at the headwaters of the Ross Valley Watershed in two valleys traversed by the San Anselmo and Fairfax Creeks, with the heart of town situated at the confluence of these two watercourses. The town presently conveys an image that is in marked contrast to that of most communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, where natural barriers between towns have repeatedly been violated by urban inroads. Indeed, the open spaces between many Marin communities have been developed to the point that natural boundaries no longer exist. The natural boundaries and spaces in Fairfax, however, which include redwood forests, sparkling creeks and waterfalls, wooded and grassy hills, and numerous trails for hikers, bikers and dog walkers, are enjoyed by many residents of the entire Bay Area.
In Fairfax, California, the community is nothing if not engaged in local politics, with the residents actively participating in town meetings. And the Fairfax Town Council is listening.
Despite the idyllic setting and the Mayberry-esque population of the town, Fairfax shares the problems endemic to the modern world. The Green Party members on the Town Council are well aware of these problems and the entire council appears to have the experience and commitment to progressive values that will help them assist the town ñ and potentially broader communities ñ in navigating through these challenging times.
Pam Hartwell-Herrero, the newest Green on the Council, acted as Executive Director of Sustainable Fairfax for five years before running for the Council. In that role, she organized and educated the people of Fairfax to help increase the resilience of our environment, our economy and the community. Pam also served as president of the Marin Master Gardeners, and worked for the Marin Stormwater Pollution Prevention Program. While her tenure on the Town Council is just beginning, Pam is very interested in integrating key principles of sustainability into all aspects of Town policies and practices. She says she is focused primarily on energy, waste and water. Pam is also interested in changing the perception that outsiders have of Fairfax, that it is full of crazy hippies. She would like folks outside the town to see it the way she does, as a progressive town, working hard to maintain its character, while moving into a sustainable future.
Lew Tremaine is currently Fairfaxís mayor. He has served on the Town Council since 1999 and is currently exploring the possibility of running for Governor of California on the Green Party ticket. Lew champions the successes that he and other Greens in Marin have achieved both within Fairfax and on a larger scale. For example, the Fairfax Town Council passed an anti-plastic bag ordinance in 2007. While the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and most local merchants supported the measure, the ordinance was challenged in lawsuits filed against the town by plastic bag manufacturers. Despite these challenges, Measure C was put on the local ballot and, in November of 2008, Fairfax voters outlawed the use of plastic bags in stores and restaurants. Today, the County of Marin is considering a similar ban county-wide.
Lew also champions the Local Democracy Ordinance, which guarantees Fairfax residents the ability to put state and national issues on the Town Councilís agenda and gives the Council the power to speak out on such matters. In addition, Lewís involvement in a variety of progressive issues — from his opposition to the local water districtís use of toxic herbicides in the watershed, to his opposition to Californiaís aerial spray program to eradicate the light-brown apple moth, to his support for the Marin Clean Energy Authority — all demonstrate his consistent reliability in supporting progressive values both in Fairfax and beyond.
Larry Bragman is the third Green Party member on the Fairfax Town Council. Larry is a consumer attorney whose priorities include eliminating toxins from the community, protecting the natural environment, promoting the personal health and fitness of Fairfax residents, protecting the Townís unique small-town character, and making the Town government more user-friendly for its citizens. Larry readily acknowledges that the financial and environmental challenges facing Fairfax and small and large cities throughout the State of California are never-ending. Larryís goals, like Pamís, include reconfiguring the Townís practices in terms of water, transportation, education, and, well, everything, to conform to core values of sustainability and community.
John Reed and David Weinsoff are the other two members of the Fairfax Town Council. Both are registered Democrats, although John Reed was a registered Green for many years. David Weinsoff is an environmental attorney and is very sensitive to environmental matters that arise in the town. John Reed served as the Chair of the Fairfax Volunteer Board for the last seven years and initiated town-wide safety and community building programs including neighborhood brush clearing, pedestrian trail improvements, and the Town Picnic.
None of the Council Members anticipate divisions on the Council along party lines, and all of them agreed that the Councilís deliberations are not defined by party. Pam indicated that she believes the success of the Green Party in Fairfax was not because the Party is the majority or especially robust in Marin. Rather, she believes that the goals of the Green Party reflect the values of the citizens of Fairfax. John Reed also acknowledged that the values of the Green Party, especially the platform, are basically shared by all of Fairfaxís council members.
The incredible challenges the planet and the human race currently face can be overwhelming. But, clearly, protecting the environment is the key to our survival as a species and the survival of all living things on the earth. On a large scale, the challenges are so daunting and solutions seem far away, if not unattainable. But if we focus in on the local scene, we can see political changes taking root on a very real, practical level in little towns across the country. When committed people who are willing to sacrifice their time and effort to lead their communities can engage the citizenry, and when the citizens come together and rise above partisanism, all can act together for the benefit of each other and the greater good. And that effort, that sacrifice, and that community commitment can be shared on a broader basis with neighboring towns and wider communities on a county, state, national, and even international level.
In Fairfax, California, the community is nothing if not engaged in local politics, with the residents actively participating in town meetings. And the Fairfax Town Council is listening. Certainly, the Council strives to engage this community, where progressive values have had a stronghold for decades. But, more important perhaps, is the citizensí engagement of their local representatives in return. When the citizens do their homework and actively participate in meaningful, civil discourse in public forums, and those voices are actually heard, then that ìgenius,î democracy, as Larry Bragman put it, will not only be healthy, but will truly thrive — verdant, lush and Green.
Mimi Newton is an environmental attorney who lives in Fairfax and works in San Francisco, California. She is chair of the Fairfax Open Space Committee and has been a member of the Green Party for about 20 years.