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.