Longtime Sonoma County transit, climate leader retiring

Suzanne Smith led efforts to pass Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax that supports Highway 101 projects, street infrastructure projects, bike projects, SMART and bus transit.|

Suzanne Smith, executive director for the region’s transportation and climate authorities, is retiring this year after decades spent building the agencies from the ground up.

Smith, 53, announced Monday that she would retire at the end of the year. Her departure will cap more than two decades leading the Sonoma County Transit Authority and Regional Climate Protection Authority.

“I feel very very connected to the work and the people both at SCTA and RCPA,” Smith said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to hire all the employees and work with dozens of elected officials over the years. It’s definitely mixed emotions with which I’ve made this decision.”

Why it matters: As regional agencies the Sonoma County Transit Authority and Regional Climate Protection Authority represent Sonoma County and the area’s nine cities.

The agencies must balance the interests of each local government while spearheading transit projects, including the Highway 101 widening, and climate protection initiatives, including exploring a climate revenue ballot measure expected to come to voters in 2024.

A look at Smith’s 26-year career: Smith was hired as the transit authority’s executive director in 1997 when the authority transitioned from a county department to an independent agency. She then stepped into a leadership role with the climate protection authority when the agency was formed in 2009.

When she was initially hired in 1997, Smith said she was tasked with three goals: to get a sales tax measure passed to support transportation, widen Highway 101 and establish train service.

“Those were the three big ticket items in the late 90s,” Smith said. “We have been able to do all of those things, and I’m very very proud to have been part of that.”

In 2004 Smith also led efforts to pass Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax that supports Highway 101 projects, street infrastructure projects, bike projects, SMART and bus transit.

“We demonstrated to the community and to voters that we would be good stewards of their tax dollars,” Smith said. “I’m proud of that legacy of being true to our word and having integrity to deliver projects.”

What’s next for the transit and climate authorities:

Smith expects her last day will be in the fall.

Chris Rogers, chair of the board of directors for both agencies, said the board hopes to have a new executive director ready to take over by the time Smith leaves.

“We need someone who not only understands transportation and climate but also has exceptional interpersonal skills and an innate understanding of how politics works and how to move projects forward,” Rogers said.

What county leaders have to say:

“I’ve never seen (Suzanne) fail at anything,” said Rogers. “She is the kind of person who is able to think exceptionally creatively about how we craft policies and get them to the finish line. I’m really sad that she’s retiring but it’s well deserved after 26 years in the role and she’s been an incredible leader in our community.”

“Suzanne has made an incredible difference to Sonoma County and the North Bay, ushering in critical congestion relief and safety improvements,” said Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.

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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