City Beat

City Council bids fond farewell to Bonnie Pannell

The Pannell era has come to a close at Sacramento City Hall.

Bonnie Pannell, who was elected to a Sacramento City Council seat following the death of her husband and then led her south-area district for 16 years, took part in her final council meeting Tuesday night.

Pannell announced in March that she was stepping down from office because she suffers from a rare neurological condition called primary progressive aphasia. The condition can hinder speech and communication. Pannell has said the illness has not affected her cognitive abilities or mobility, but she has struggled at times communicating in public in recent months.

In bidding farewell to Pannell, the City Council voted Tuesday to place her name on a crown jewel of her district – what will now be called the Samuel and Bonnie Pannell Community Center on Meadowview Road. Pannell’s husband, Sam, occupied the council seat from 1992 until his death.

“I hate to leave. I don’t want to leave; my doctor told me I had to retire,” Pannell said. “My voice is gone.”

“We accomplished a lot of projects,” she added.

Pannell’s remarks were met with a long standing ovation from the audience and her City Council colleagues.

The City Council is expected next week to schedule a special election in November to fill Pannell’s seat. The seat will remain vacant until Pannell’s replacement is sworn into office in December.

Pannell was first elected in June 1998, six months after the death of her husband.

Although she had been a fixture by her husband’s side for years, Pannell was at first a reluctant politician. She acknowledged in public that she wasn’t convinced she wanted to be on the City Council and admitted to a Bee reporter during her 2000 re-election campaign that she “didn’t even know if (she) could do the job.” A political newcomer during her first campaign, Pannell nonetheless received the support of every politician at City Hall and many of the city’s big special interests.

Over a decade and a half of public service, Pannell developed a reputation as a fierce defender of her challenged district, touting its positive sides in an often blunt manner. She could also come across as truculent; Pannell was heard on the council chambers’ audio system calling a woman an expletive during a heated City Council meeting in 2011.

Her popularity grew, with Pannell getting re-elected four times, twice without facing an opponent. In 2012, she ran a bitter and sometimes personal campaign against former local NAACP chair Betty Williams, defeating Williams by just 213 votes.

“She’s someone who just looks to what this community needs and looks to the future, politics be damned,” said Councilman Steve Cohn, who served alongside Pannell for her entire tenure.

Neighborhood leaders applauded Pannell’s work in her district’s neighborhoods, from organizing concerts to advocating for public swimming pools. She was also a driving force behind the construction of a new library in Valley Hi and the extension of light rail in south Sacramento.

“You have been a dedicated representative for our community,” said David Bain, the head of the Cabrillo Park Neighborhood Association.

Perhaps Pannell’s most recognized accomplishment was her work in forcing out absentee property owners and gangs from the former Franklin Villa neighborhood. The area, now called Phoenix Park, is anchored by a community center.

Former Councilman and Mayor Jimmie Yee, now a Sacramento County supervisor, described Pannell as “a bulldog.” Bill Edgar, a former city manager, said Pannell was a “quiet, tenacious” council member who was effective getting things done behind the scenes.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who’s done more for their district than you have,” Councilman Jay Schenirer told Pannell. “That’s just a fact.”