Rivals for Sonoma County Board of Supervisors clash in Santa Rosa Metro Chamber candidates’ forum

The ticketed forum was the first this year to bring together the three county incumbents running for reelection next March and two challengers seeking to unseat them.|

Scheduled forums

A forum focused on childcare is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 547 Mendocino Ave.

The League of Women Voters has not yet announced a candidate forum, and a call to the organization was not immediately returned.

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.

'The Board of Supervisors has kicked the problem down the road,' Coursey said. 'I would address those problems from Day 1.'

But Hopkins said she was proud to be part of a board she called fiscally responsible.

'We've worked very hard to make sure we're addressing those challenges,' Hopkins said.

She used her answer on a separate issue — housing — to praise Zane's vocal call in recent years to ramp up housing development.

'We're incredibly lucky to have the leadership of Supervisor Zane on the renewable enterprise district,' Hopkins said, referencing Zane's role as a board member for a newly formed agency that is seeking to ease the path for infill housing projects.

Zane has been endorsed by all of her fellow supervisors and nearly all of the region's elected federal and state representatives. She also leads in fundraising, holding a slight edge in campaign donations during the last reporting period but nearly five times more cash on hand than Coursey.

'I've just been really impressed with the leadership role that she has taken,' Hopkins said, explaining afterward her strong testimony in favor of Zane during the forum. 'I've learned a fair amount from her in my two years and three-quarters in office.'

Zane, responding to a question about disaster preparedness, acknowledged the county's failure to issue more widespread alerts to residents during the deadly 2017 wildfires. She was chairwoman of the board when the firestorm hit.

'We were not ready for those wildfires,' she said Wednesday.

She clashed again with Coursey over the growing homeless encampment in southwestern Santa Rosa on the Joe Rodota Trail off Highway 12. The encampment, which now numbers more than 100 people, is on county parkland within city limits, fueling questions about which local government is responsible for dealing with it and the residents.

Hopkins, who represents the area, said she was frustrated by the swelling camp, saying it reflected 'everything that's wrong with government.'

Coursey said the issue needed stronger direction from elected officials to county and city staff members working on homelessness.

'Somebody needs to bash their heads together and get a solution,' he said

Zane praised county staff members' work.

'I would never bash our staff's heads together,' she said.

Afterward, Coursey said he thought the debate went well.

'I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,' he said, without elaborating. 'I figure other people did too.'

The debate was the second in a two-part endorsement process led by the political arm of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber. That committee will meet within the next two weeks to pick its favored candidates.

Chamber CEO Peter Rumble said it was possible the chamber will reach out to both Hilber, the Hopkins rival, and to Phil Johnson, a local contractor who this week took out paperwork to join Zane and Coursey in the 3rd District race.

Scheduled forums

A forum focused on childcare is set for 6:30 p.m. Jan. 16 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 547 Mendocino Ave.

The League of Women Voters has not yet announced a candidate forum, and a call to the organization was not immediately returned.

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