After 10-month wait, Chris Coursey takes his seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors
A 10-month transition into elected office was bound to be long under any circumstances. But Chris Coursey, the former Santa Rosa mayor, claimed his seat on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in early March at the outset of a historic pandemic.
In a matter of weeks, schools were closed, local workplaces were shuttered and the tens of thousands of county residents were jobless. Then, as coronavirus infections spiked over the summer and deaths climbed — they now stand at 19,386 cases and 196 deaths, respectively — another series of destructive wildfires overtook the region, claiming nearly 500 Sonoma County homes through October.
Throughout, Coursey, 66, a former journalist and SMART spokesman who led Santa Rosa as mayor during the 2017 firestorm and its aftermath, was forced to sit on the sidelines, watching as the county grappled with emergencies layered on unprecedented crises.
To be an elected leader in waiting was a blessing and curse for Coursey, who wasn’t responsible for any of the board’s actions, but because he was sidelined, also felt it was important to stay tight-lipped about county leadership.
“I watched them doing a job that is already hard, but I think it has been tougher than ever these last nine months,” Coursey said. “It’s hard in a way, but I knew that I was going to go through this waiting period.”
Still, he’s been bracing for a role that has changed unimaginably since he won the 3rd District seat representing central Santa Rosa and most of Rohnert Park, defeating Supervisor Shirlee Zane and becoming the first challenger to oust an incumbent supervisor in 36 years.
Coursey will be sworn in Tuesday, and he stressed the county’s response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic is at the forefront of his, and the board’s, agenda.
“We have to treat that as our immediate priority,” Coursey said.
“I do still want the job,” Coursey said. “I knew that local government has all kinds of challenges — road blocks, obstacles to getting things done. I knew that going in. I know that now more than ever. If I was intimidated by any of that, I wouldn’t have gotten into this business.”
Pandemic to dominate first year
The first Board of Supervisors meeting of the new year after an election is typically a ceremonial affair, featuring little more than the swearing in of new and returning county elected officials, some speeches and cake.
On Tuesday, however, the newly seated board will grapple with recovery from three massive wildfires over the past two years, fallout from the pandemic on the economy and county budget and even a potentially historic decision on the future $500 million headquarters for county government, the county’s largest local employer, with more than 4,100 employees.
“Normally, we have a very superficial, puffy meeting,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said with a chuckle Monday. “We’ve got some really pithy items in front of us.”
In addition to the pandemic, Coursey said, homelessness and housing will continue to be key priorities for his office and the county.
“After we can get past this immediate thing, we’re still going to have to deal with the lack of affordable housing in this community and the homelessness problem plaguing the community,” Coursey said.
As supervisor, Coursey will now bear some responsibility for county progress on those fronts, putting him in the hot seat on several combustible issues.
The county’s ill-fated attempts to unload its 72-acre Chanate Road property for housing development is one. In mid-December, the latest buyer walked away from negotiations, marking the fourth collapse of negotiations in just the past two years.
Zane, who saw her political support narrow amid that controversy, said in her parting comments last month that it would be Coursey’s problem now.
He has already emerged as a vocal supporter of the push for county’s equity in public programs and services, spearheaded now by the new Office of Equity, headed by Alegria De La Cruz, the former chief deputy county counsel. Coursey said equity should be the pivot point for the county’s response to all manner of crises.
“It’s not anything that’s ever been a secret, but the spotlight’s been on it,” Coursey said. “When we address these priorities — housing and homelessness and health — equity has to be … We have to make equity part of everything we do, as we do it.”
On the campaign trail he sought to draw a contrast with Zane over his style of leadership, pledging a more collaborative, accessible approach to governance. He’s echoed that commitment during the transition.
“The first thing you’ll notice is just a different style,” Coursey said during a recent interview with The Press Democrat’s Editorial Board. “The way I approach the job … dealing with the public, constituents, colleagues, staff — we’re two different people that way.”