Tom Schwedhelm won’t seek a third term on Santa Rosa City Council

Jeff Okrepkie, a neighbor of the city’s ex-police chief, has emerged as a candidate to replace him.|

Starting next fall, one of the hardest workers in city government might finally be able to take an occasional afternoon nap.

Tom Schwedhelm, a member of the Santa Rosa City Council since 2014, announced earlier this week that, come next November, he won’t run for a third four-year term.

After winning an at-large council race in 2014, the retired police chief was unopposed four years later in his run to represent District 6 in northwest Santa Rosa. In December 2018, Schwedhelm was selected unanimously by his fellow council members to serve as the city’s mayor.

“Talk about action-packed,” said Schwedhelm, 61, who in his two-year tenure as mayor guided Santa Rosa through the Kincade and Glass fires, the nearby Walbridge fire, a pandemic and the social tumult resulting from the killing of George Floyd. “Holy cow, that was a challenging time.”

Once he was succeeded as mayor by Chris Rogers at the end of 2020, Schwedhelm was “hoping things would slow down a little bit.”

That hasn’t really happened, said Schwedhelm, who now finds himself deeply entrenched in committee and subcommittee work involving violence prevention, groundwater sustainability — during the region’s worst drought in memory — and addressing the city’s homeless population.

“It’s a full time gig,” said Schwedhelm, who announced Tuesday on KSRO that this will be the last year of his final term.

His eight years on the council will follow 31 years with the Santa Rosa Police Department, the final four of those as its chief.

“The word that comes to mind is ‘workhorse,’” Rogers said. “All the time I’ve worked with him on council, he’s worked his tail off for this city.”

While Schwedhelm has some strong political opinions, Rogers added, “I’ve never found him ideological or dogmatic. He’s always taken a data-driven, community approach. The question he’s always asking is, ‘How do we get to yes?’”

A resident of Coffey Park, Schwedhelm’s house on Banyan Street was spared by the Tubbs fire of October 2017, which razed over 1,400 homes in that neighborhood alone.

His tireless — and remarkably successful — efforts to work with fire survivors and many others to accelerate the subsequent rebuilding will stand among his most significant accomplishments, Rogers said.

“From my perspective,” he added, “Tom has also been the city’s lead on homelessness, the one who’s been helping to redesign the continuum of care, who’s taken the time to learn what’s been effective in other cities, then figure out how to apply it to ours.”

A formidable candidate to replace Schwedhelm — one of his Coffey Park neighbors, it turns out — has already emerged.

Coffey Strong founder Jeff Okrepkie speaks during the Hopper Walls Project dedication at the corner of Coffey Lane and Hopper Avenue in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa on Aug. 24, 2019. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)
Coffey Strong founder Jeff Okrepkie speaks during the Hopper Walls Project dedication at the corner of Coffey Lane and Hopper Avenue in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa on Aug. 24, 2019. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Jeff Okrepkie, a commercial insurance agent who lost his house in the Tubbs fire, then founded and served as the first president of the neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, announced Thursday morning he would be running for Schwedhelm’s District 6 seat.

Schwedhelm has endorsed Okrepkie for the seat, praising his “ability to organize and deliver for Coffey Park despite being a fire survivor himself ... I know he will bring that same energy and spirit to be an effective member of city council.”

Okrepkie said Thursday that he “never intended to run for office at any point.” But the fire and its aftermath thrust him into a leadership role, with Coffey Strong. Among those who noticed was Schwedhelm, who became “kind of a mentor to me.”

One of his important roles as police chief, Schwedhelm recalled, was “helping people get ready for the next level.” While working with Okrepkie during the Tubbs fire rebuild, he recognized someone with the “skills and abilities” to serve on city council.

Okrepkie, he believes, shares his work ethic. “He gets it.”

“He can thrive at this,” said Schwedhelm. “But there’s still a lot to learn. I hope he stays humble, asks a lot of questions, and does more listening than talking.

“You know some elected officials do like to talk. But listening is a more valuable commodity.“

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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