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James Gore selected as chair of Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

A rift opened last year between Sonoma County supervisors Chris Coursey and Lynda Hopkins over the county’s disputed redistricting process proved difficult to bridge Tuesday as the board addressed a routine step in its 2022 calendar: the selection of members for board leadership posts.

Hopkins in the meeting accused Coursey of violating the Brown Act, the state law covering transparency for local governments. The allegation scuttled, at least momentarily, board members’ hopes of moving past the discord and proved another public example of the tension that has existed especially between Hopkins and Coursey.

Despite the two elected leaders sparred anew, the board unanimously selected Supervisor James Gore as chair, Coursey as vice-chair for a consecutive year, and Supervisor David Rabbitt as chair pro-tem.

That had not been the lineup expected at the end of last year.

Coursey, now in the second year of his first term, was next in the rotation to take over as chair from Hopkins but withdrew from consideration, voicing his desire Tuesday to “turn down the temperature” on the board — a reference to the heated redistricting process and open conflict it sparked, mostly between Coursey and Hopkins.

The conflict broke out in to the open again at the five-member board’s first meeting of the new year.

Hopkins accused Coursey of violating the Brown Act because he discussed his decision not to pursue the chair post with Gore in December and also sent Hopkins a text on Dec. 13 notifying her that he asked Gore to switch places in the rotation for chair.

“We owe it to the public to have this conversation in public,” Hopkins said, later adding, “This discussion should reflect an attempt to meet the spirit of the Brown Act and cure the violations that occurred prior to this meeting.”

Coursey in turn acknowledged that he made a mistake texting Hopkins after speaking with Gore — a type of “serial communication” about county business forbidden under the Brown Act.

Coursey, a former Santa Rosa mayor and longtime columnist and reporter with The Press Democrat, said he realized his error after sending the text.

“We need to do this in public, we need to have a chair, we need to make a decision as a group,” Coursey said. “Respectfully, I don’t think the decision gets made as a conversation in the hall between two supervisors.”

Coursey in December had questioned the board’s use of a closed-door meeting to discuss redistricting during a closed session meeting on Nov. 19, and calling the “threat of litigation” pretense cited for the session “flawed” and “bogus.”

The accusation that the board violated the Brown Act did not sit well with Coursey’s colleagues, who stood by the reasons for the confidential meeting as valid. County documents provided at the request of The Press Democrat in December, showed that talk of west county residents pooling money to hire a lawyer, angry social media posts and emails alleging gerrymandering formed the basis for the private meeting.

However, the documents released by the county do not contain an explicit threat of litigation.

“The redistricting process indicated dysfunction junction — that the board has been unable to rally around a direction forward at a critical time for this county,” said David McCuan, chair of the political science department at Sonoma State University.

During Tuesday’s discussion, Gore said he had expressed interest in switching places with Coursey in the rotation earlier in 2021, and that in December Coursey relayed his plans to withdraw from consideration.

Gore called Hopkins’ Brown Act reference “interesting.”

“I talked with a county counsel. I saw it more as an announcement than a deliberation and that’s how I took it,” Gore said.

He also noted that the board historically use a rotation to identify the next in line for board leadership ahead of the first meeting of every new year, during which the board votes in the new chair, vice chair and pro-tem. The expected, incoming chair usually “sits with every member of the board,” Gore said.

On Tuesday, both Gore and Rabbitt threw their names into the ring for nomination to chair, citing their desire to step up and help the county as it continues to grapple with the pandemic and recovery from multiple disasters in recent years.

“My goal is the same as Supervisor Rabbitt’s,” Gore said, citing Rabbitt’s interest in being chair and his call for stable leadership for county employees and constituents. “It’s stability, it’s healing.

With Gore, Gorin and Rabbitt caught in the middle, both Hopkins and Coursey will have to make a stronger effort publicly and privately to bridge their differences, McCuan said. It is a tall order as “their disagreement is so deep, so personal and now so public,” McCuan noted.

Coursey’s decision to withdraw, and Rabbitt and Gore’s subsequent pitches for chair, left the board in uncharted ground as how to proceed without deepening discord among members. The moment was marked by an awkward pause, when Hopkins asked Gore and Rabbitt to “have a conversation and figure it out.”

Both in turn, reiterated their interest in the position and willingness to follow the board’s decision.

Supervisor Susan Gorin on Tuesday thanked Coursey for his consideration of the chair post and seconded his nomination of Gore for chair because he was next in line after Coursey.

“Supervisor Gore does serve as the pro-tem now, so I err on the side of succession,” Gorin said.

She added that Coursey had indicated his decision to switch in the rotation during a meeting with her in December about committee appointments, and that she had urged him to reconsider.

“I think he would make an incredible chair and make great contributions as he has shown with his advocacy and effectiveness, but clearly his mind is made up,” Gorin said.

When time came for the board to vote on Coursey and Rabbitt as vice-chair and pro-tem, Hopkins said she would not second the motion unless Coursey agreed to return her texts and calls.

“In good conscience I cannot pass a vote for someone who refuses to speak with me,” Hopkins said in an echo of their December dispute during which Hopkins invited Coursey for a beer, an invitation she renewed Tuesday.

Coursey reminded her of their text exchange on Dec. 13 and said that during their last phone call some time before, Hopkins characterized Coursey as being a bad colleague.

“I’m trying to lower the temperature here,” Coursey said. “I would very much welcome an improved relationship with you Lynda, and I hope we can work on that.”

Hopkins, in a follow-up text message to The Press Democrat, denied calling Coursey a bad colleague.

The exchange ended Tuesday with Hopkins pushing Coursey to affirm he would respond to her texts and calls. Coursey interjected. “It’s a yes,” he said.

McCuan said he sees an opportunity for the board to smooth things over with Gore as the new chair

“I do think there is an opportunity because James like to see everyone get along,” McCuan said.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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