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Sonoma County appoints one of its own to temporarily lead new equity office

Sonoma County is turning to one of its own to help get the Office of Equity off the ground, hiring chief deputy county counsel Alegria De La Cruz to serve as interim director and get to work confronting racial disparities laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic.

The county Board of Supervisors appointed De La Cruz to the post in a closed discussion Tuesday, just one week after deciding to establish the nearly $800,000-per-year effort intended to be the backbone of the agency’s mission to root out racist policies.

Her tenure as equity officer will be temporary until the county can launch a nationwide search for a permanent director. A county spokesperson said her salary will not change, but the permanent officer hired later will receive about $280,000 annually.

De La Cruz, a first-term Santa Rosa City Schools board member also seeking reelection this fall, said the office represents the county’s intentional investment toward racial equality, and aligned with her daily efforts over the last few months helping disadvantaged communities withstand the effects of the pandemic.

At its peak, the Latino population in Sonoma County accounted for almost 80% of area coronavirus cases, and 98% of children 17 and under who were infected. And that disparity is more troubling when considering Latinos comprise 27% of the county population.

De La Cruz said the first step will be galvanizing the community to address the economic and public health inequalities that have contributed to higher rates of COVID-19 transmission among minorities.

“When I think about what’s before me in these positions of responsibility and leadership, I do not take them on alone,” said De La Cruz, who also serves as a board member of the local Latino leaders’ group Los Cien. “I have such a strong, rich community of people who make doing all of this work — not going to say it’s easy — but they make it meaningful. I don’t ever consider I’m doing this alone.”

The county’s equity office was modeled after similar efforts in San Francisco, Marin and Santa Clara counties, as well as other cities along the West Coast, according to county officials. The goal is to recommend new laws, build equitable internal policies and adjust how government services are delivered to prevent disparate racial outcomes.

Sonoma County wanted to launch the office quickly, given the immediate response that’s needed to help the Latino population and communities of color curb virus transmission, said Supervisor James Gore, who first proposed forming the county’s Office of Equity.

De La Cruz has worked closely with the county’s Latinx Health Work Group, which already has begun enhancing government outreach and delivering resources to those communities.

“Alegria is a complete rock star,” Gore said. “The reason we needed to appoint an interim (officer) is because, with the way government works, we can’t wait three months to do a hiring process while people suffer right now.”

Sonoma County officials have been criticized for introducing the equity office amid a projected budget deficit of $50 million, driven mostly by sales tax declines and millions in emergency expenses.

The decision “creates a lot of internal angst,” Gore said, but the reality was that this work couldn’t wait, and he said he hopes it compels other public agencies and organizations around the county to make their own investment for this purpose.

“One equity office in a county government will not change things on its own,” he said. “This is not a call-out but a call-in for our cities, school boards, nonprofit business groups — whether it’s money, time or just space to have the dialogue — what are you doing on equity in this moment?”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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