Rivals for Sonoma County Board of Supervisors clash in Santa Rosa Metro Chamber candidates’ forum
Former Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey used his first debate appearance Wednesday alongside political rival Shirlee Zane, the Sonoma County supervisor he is seeking to oust, to assail the entire Board of Supervisors for what he said was an overly provincial focus on representing their districts and not the entire county.
Taking aim in his opening remarks at what he called 'the status quo,' Coursey said that the county board — where Zane is the longest-serving member — is hampered by ineffective leadership that doesn't face challenges as one, causing inefficiency and confusion among staff.
'The status quo is not good enough,' he said. 'County staff is often pulled in different directions by the supervisors. The majority are focusing on issues and concerns specific to their own districts, not necessarily the whole county.'
The remarks, which came after Zane's opening statement and remarks by Supervisor Susan Gorin but before Supervisor Lynda Hopkins set a pugnacious tone for the 90-minute candidates' forum hosted by the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber at the Santa Rosa Golf & Country Club.
The ticketed forum, with seats going for up to $50, was the first this year to bring together the three county incumbents running for reelection next March and two challengers seeking to unseat them. Among those races, the Zane-Coursey contest is seen as the most intense, pitting two former allies who dated years ago against each other for a county seat representing central Santa Rosa and much of Rohnert Park.
The forum featured prepared questions from the chamber and two from attendees on a range of topics, including housing, disaster preparedness and county spending priorities. About 100 people were in attendance.
Zane, who is running for her fourth term, said the Board of Supervisors has molded county government 'into a lean and mean organization,' while highlighting her work with board Chairman David Rabbitt to address crumbling roads and escalating pension costs.
'We're like family,' Zane said during her opening remark, referring to the Board of Supervisors. 'We share food, we share laughs, we share in our lives.'
Gorin, a former Santa Rosa mayor who is vying for her third term representing the city's eastern flank and Sonoma Valley, indicated she would run on her long experience in local government and familiarity with voters in her district.
'You know me,' Gorin said warmly to open the forum.
She said she hadn't intended to run for another term before her house in Oakmont, along with more than 5,300 others in the county, burned down in the 2017 fires.
'It's important for me to run again because I have some significantly incomplete work to do,' Gorin said.
Her rival, three-term Sonoma Councilman David Cook, said he would seek to be a stronger voice for Sonoma Valley, the geographic center of the 1st District — though arguably not its political epicenter. He vowed to deal closely with budget issues while fixing roads and setting aside money for to cut down on the county's towering pension liabilities.
Cook, who owns a vineyard management company, spoke of the ongoing wine grape harvest, and declared himself a friend of the working man while lamenting the local cost of living, saying his employees didn't earn enough money to fill their gas tanks.
He clarified afterward that he was talking about general compensation for farmworkers, not specifically his. He said he pays employees more than $15.50 per hour, and extra during the harvest.
Though he vowed to make road repair a priority, Cook was the lone candidate at the forum to come out against a proposed extension next year of Measure M, the countywide sales tax that supports highway and road upgrades.
'Enough is enough,' he said.
Hopkins, who is running for her second term representing the west county, appeared at the forum without any declared rival. Michael Hilber, a Santa Rosa resident expected to challenge Hopkins on the March ballot wasn't on the panel.
Hopkins, responding to a question about the county's housing crisis, said the county's permitting process too often burdened applicants with delays and uncertainty, hobbling development. She noted her support of a plan for growth in the west county that she said would help streamline approval of development.
Coursey, in his speaking time at the forum, criticized the Board of Supervisors for underfunding county reserves, falling behind on pension obligations and failing to achieve many of its lofty promises on housing creation.
He called out the chronic budget woes in the county's health department, which before last-minute, one-time fixes this year was planning to slash dozens of jobs, most of them vacant, and funding for nonprofit service providers.