Hopkins stakes out ambitious agenda as new chair of county Board of Supervisors
On the back side of Bodega Head last month, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was laboring with a large wooden sign that had seen better days.
Hopkins, who represents the county’s entire 76-mile coast, spotted the downed sign near the protected shore of Campbell Cove, where small waves pushed and pulled it back and forth on the sand.
The sign declared the beach an ecological study area, and warned visitors against digging in the important research zone. Hopkins dragged it 20 yards to an embankment, and with a series of grunts, hauled it up to a concrete picnic table before dusting the sand and muck from her hands.
“Old habits die hard, I guess,” she said with a laugh.
Five years ago, Hopkins was a political newcomer in her first run for elected office against a better-known opponent, former state Sen. Noreen Evans. But Hopkins, a former journalist and organic farmer, made inroads with voters by digging in on local issues and being quick to lend a hand.
On the campaign trail, she helped clear trash from west county waterways, and in her first weeks in office, she donned rubber boots to survey historic flooding along some of those same streams.
When Hopkins sees a problem, even if it’s not clearly hers, she wants to fix it. The instinct helped her get elected to represent the sprawling 5th District, stretching from Sebastopol to The Sea Ranch.
It’s a central thread running through many of the high-profile wins she has scored in office — ranging from open space protection and education funding to homelessness, police accountability and divestment from private prison companies.
But the approach also has aggravated some constituents, board colleagues and fellow elected officials, who have often balked at Hopkins’ penchant for wading into issues beyond the traditional grasp of county government.
This year, Hopkins, as the new Board of Supervisors chair, will bring more power to that far-reaching, interventionist brand of leadership, and she has left little doubt that she intends to use it.
With a clear disdain for business as usual, she’s preparing a sweeping agenda aimed at stimulating the local economy, slowing the tide of climate change and fostering equity and transparency in county government.
“I really feel like we live in this world of broken systems in government,” said Hopkins, 37. “My hope is that we take this crisis and use it to look at what isn’t working and work to forge something better for the community.”
On Tuesday, Hopkins was sworn into her second term in office by her daughter, Gillian Hopkins, 8, whose siblings, Addy, 5, and 1-year-old Linden, looked on, offering the occasional giggle while their mother assumed the role of chair.
“Back when I imagined my year as chair of the Board of Supervisors, it didn’t look like this,” Hopkins said, making her first remarks from her Forestville home. “I didn’t think I’d be hiding from my distance-learning children in a corner of my bedroom, my button-down shirt and suit jacket paired with my favorite comfy jeans and slippers.”
Hopkins, a Southern California native and Stanford alumna with two environmental degrees, likes to chalk up her political wins to a relentless work ethic, one that even her detractors acknowledge. She prepares meticulously but scoffs at the notion that she’s organized.
“I would say I thrive in chaos,” Hopkins said in an interview last month.
As a journalist between 2009 and 2013 with the Sonoma West Times & News, she made it a point of pride to write the longest, most detailed stories on government bureaucracy. Some of her biggest goals for 2021, she’ll acknowledge, involve wonkish efforts to shore up the county’s agenda setting and public notification processes. She plans to push for an all-encompassing public meeting with each of the nine city councils in the county, calling it a first for the county and demonstrating commitment to a sort of aspirational bureaucracy.
As recently as last month, Hopkins was pushing for a board discussion on the powers of the chair because, she said, each successive leader in the board’s rotation had approached the role differently. Hopkins has her own view.
“I think it’s really important to set the tone in terms of meeting leadership,” Hopkins said. “But I also think that it’s an opportunity to set the outward-facing tone for the county, to really identify and establish priorities that are within the framework of what the board supports.”
Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board’s senior incumbent, who has served as chair three times during his 10 years in office, eschews the notion the rotating role is responsible for driving board direction.