Rugino, Wheeler discuss issues in Cloverdale council race

"Walker" J. Thomas Rugino, left, is a Cloverdale City Council candidate. As is Brian Wheeler, right, who is also running for a seat on the Cloverdale City Council. (Courtesy "Walker" J. Thomas Rugino and Brian Wheeler)
September 4, 2022, 3:30PM
Updated 5 hours ago

The race is on for three seats on the Cloverdale City Council, with four candidates of varying backgrounds vying for three seats.

Incumbent Council member Marta Cruz opted not to seek reelection in November and Council member Joe Palla, who was appointed to his seat after Mayor Jason Turner resigned, chose not to run. Vice Mayor Gus Wolter, whose term is ending, has decided to run for his sixth term on the council.

Candidates who have qualified to run are Wolter, Brian Wheeler, Marjorie Morgenstern and "Walker" J. Thomas Rugino. There are no council districts in Cloverdale; the top three vote-getters will win seats.

This is the first of two installments profiling the candidates who submitted biographical information and gave interviews about what they see as the issues in Cloverdale and why they decided to run.

Walker’ J. Thomas Rugino

Rugino, originally from the East Coast, moved from Santa Rosa to Cloverdale in 2016 after 20 years to take advantage of subsidized senior housing. He said he’s running to "give back to the community that has so warmly welcomed me."

"I love Cloverdale," he said. "It’s a great town."

However, Rugino, 70, said he believes there is a "crisis of leadership in this community and in this country" and he wants "a seat at the table."

When asked about the most pressing issues in Cloverdale, Rugino pointed to garbage and water rates.

"The city made all these infrastructure improvements years ago and now (the bills) are coming due," he said. "The city didn’t make a plan to pay for it and now garbage and water rates are going to go up every year for 15 years."

When asked how he would fix this or other problems he’s noticed, he said "I’m not the answers guy — I don’t have all the solutions. I’m smart enough to know what the problem is and open-minded and open-hearted enough to seek the solutions."

Another issue he said he’d like to tackle is how to continue to build badly needed affordable housing when there is a water shortage in Cloverdale. He also sees a need for better transportation options for seniors in town.

"If I didn’t have my car, I’d feel stranded," he added.

Rugino said he came out as gay at age 23 at his first Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco in the 1970s. He has been active in political campaigns and causes ever since. The first campaign he got involved in was George McGovern’s presidential run in 1972 when he was a college sophomore at Syracuse University. He also participated in the Gay and Lesbian March on Washington in 1993.

A former administrative assistant, Rugino is retired, and enjoys spending time with a group of friends at The Plank coffee shop in Cloverdale, drinking coffee and reading newspapers.

Now he said he wants to be "a booster for Cloverdale," and this week plans to go door to door talking to residents.

"I’m going to tell them ‘I’m running, this is who I am, what do you think?’ " he said.

Brian Wheeler

Born and raised in Montana, Wheeler said he joined the U.S. Coast Guard when he was 18 and spent 26½ years on active duty, ending his service when he retired in 2012 in the Bay Area.

He and his wife, Amy, high school sweethearts, decided to move back to Montana so their daughters could attend the University of Montana. But once that was done, having lived in California for several years, Wheeler said, they decided to return to warmer weather. They purchased a nice house in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

In October 2017, the historic Tubbs Fire laid waste to many of the homes there. But the Wheelers’ home survived. They had the house cleaned to insurance standards, sold it and bought "twice the home in Cloverdale" in December 2017, he added.

"We liked Coffey Park and Santa Rosa but we are really small-town people," said Wheeler, 54. "We used to drive up to Cloverdale just to get out of town and say, ‘Hey what a neat little town.’"

His wife is a nurse. She commutes to Santa Rosa, where she works for the veterans clinic near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. Wheeler said he took a job as a seasonal parks worker in town, "just to keep busy."

Wheeler said since then he’s gotten to know folks around Cloverdale, including at the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce office, where he sometimes offers to help set up for events like the upcoming car show. He said some of his friends have urged him to run for a seat on the council.

Like Rugino, one of the issues Wheeler is concerned about is housing developments being approved in Cloverdale without possibly having the water infrastructure to support them.

And Wheeler said although he thinks the current council is "great," he’s noticed "some room for improvement" in the town and thought "maybe we need some fresh eyes, some different leadership styles."

"I’d like to keep the uniqueness (of Cloverdale), but maybe upgrade some parts of town," he said. "Something to attract people."

As a council member, he said he would like to have more interaction with constituents, "be more dynamic; I’d like to be out and about and not just go to meetings," Wheeler said. "I want hear from people and introduce an ordinance to fix (a problem). Mingle with the citizens."

The Nov. 8 election will be consolidated with the general statewide election, according to the Cloverdale City Clerk’s Office.

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at [email protected] or 707-521-5209.

Kathleen Coates

Windsor and Cloverdale, The Press Democrat

As someone who grew up in a small town, I enjoy covering what's happening in Windsor and Cloverdale, which are growing in their own unique ways. I delve into issues by getting to know people and finding out what’s going on in the community. I also pay attention to animal welfare and other issues that affect Sonoma County.

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