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Sonoma County supervisors postpone leadership vote set to end chairperson’s rotation

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has postponed an early discussion and vote on board leadership, pulling back from the brink of a decision that could have overthrown decades of tradition and prolonged a cycle of infighting and open frustration at the top of county government.

The move to punt on a planned conversation and potential vote about the role of the board chair — including how that person is selected and the length of their service — ensures Supervisor-elect Chris Coursey will have a say in matters that could impact board governance for years to come.

Calling it a potentially divisive discussion, Board of Supervisors Chair Susan Gorin tabled the matter until at least next month, giving Coursey an opportunity to participate after he is sworn in.

“I think it’s important we have these discussions when the full board is seated,” Gorin said. “But I’m really looking at the items on our agenda for Tuesday and the following Tuesday — a lot of important issues are coming forward.”

Leadership decisions are usually scheduled for the board’s first meeting of the year and have long been a routine formality, based on a set rotation of the chairperson’s gavel among the five county supervisorial districts.

But at the behest of Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the incoming chair under the standard rotation and the junior member on the current board, a discussion was scheduled to reevalutate how the county chooses the chair and vice chair roles.

Hopkins said she was surprised the discussion was pushed back, citing a need to be ready to lead as chair at the start of the year. Waiting, she said, “starts us out on that unclear foundation, where we haven’t had clarity on the role of the chair and what their job is.”

Coursey, the former Santa Rosa mayor, would be the incoming vice chair next year under the standard rotation, but that role still could be in some limbo, pending the outcome of a discussion now likely to take place Jan. 5 — Coursey’s first meeting as supervisor representing central Santa Rosa.

Hopkins insisted she favored an early discussion of the issue as a matter of good governance — not as a political maneuver meant to sideline an incoming supervisor or fellow incumbent.

“I think that the conversation surrounding election vs. rotation is long overdue,” Hopkins said. “It’s a conversation I’ve wanted to have from the beginning from a philosophical standpoint.”

Coursey has been tight-lipped in the past eight months about board matters since his March 3 win over Supervisor Shirlee Zane, but he broke his silence last week in protest of the potential leadership shake-up.

“This decision is a decision that affects me for the next four years, and it disturbs me that they feel a need to make this decision with only four of the five people that will be affected by it,” Coursey said, when the discussion was still planned for Tuesday’s meeting.

Its postponement was the right decision, he said.

Hopkins, the west county supervisor, will begin her second four-year term next year but is slated for her first run as the board chair. She said she sought the meeting to clarify the powers she is set to inherit, which include a leading role shaping the board’s agenda and representing the board to the public.

“I’ve been on the board for four years, and I still don’t have clarity on exactly what the authority of the chair is. Honestly, everyone has a different view,” Hopkins said.

One proposal floated in the discussion for Tuesday would have the board consider electing among themselves a board chair and designating that post a two-year role.

Supervisors David Rabbitt, James Gore and Zane expressed interest in reviewing a more formal vote for board leadership, but they were less enthusiastic about the prospect of a two-year term.

“I don’t think it needs to be a two-year spot,” said Rabbitt, before offering an alternative from his own experience: “You can be elected two consecutive years.”

Rabbitt in 2014 became the first supervisor to serve consecutive years as chair in decades. With support from fellow incumbents, he extended his tenure after then-Supervisor Mike McGuire turned down the gavel as he sought higher office in the state Senate. Rabbitt called the back-to-back service “doable.”

Hopkins said she’s simply interested in having the discussion, citing various city councils, including the Santa Rosa City Council, that elect mayors from among their ranks to two-year terms.

“I welcome that conversation,” she said. “It’s something I’ve asked about from an intellectual curiosity standpoint: ‘What are the drawbacks and benefits of each?’ ” she said.

The current rotation of chair duties among the five districts has been in place for at least a half century, though it is not enshrined in county law or board policy. It is meant to provide constituents in each of the districts the benefit of having a guaranteed opportunity for their representative to set the board’s agenda, ensuring some equitable distribution of influence on a board that can develop factions and power brokers.

“The practice of the kind of qualified rotation has been a recognition that board members are all equal in terms of their standing amongst themselves,” said former Supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, who was elected in 1976 and served one term. “Nobody is mayor of the county. That has always been the underlying premise.”

There have been exceptions. Zane and Efren Carrillo opted to push back their rotations into the top role after they were first elected to the board in 2008 at the outset of a historic recession. Between them, their three fellow supervisors, Paul Kelley, Valerie Brown and Mike Kerns had decades of experience in local and state government.

Supervisor James Gore, McGuire’s successor in north county, said he’d at least entertain the idea of something more than a pro forma annual selection.

“I think you have a board right now that is not like previous boards, perhaps, and is looking to do things in a different manner,” Rabbitt said.

The discussion comes at the end of a supremely difficult year in county governance, which has been tested like never before by the coronavirus pandemic, a deep and sudden recession and another run of historic wildfires.

Disagreements and debate among supervisors have at times devolved into open frustration at public meetings, particularly as board members worked through policymaking on the fly, without the normal in-person assistance of top administrators and legal staff.

“There’s been a lot of frustration about how things are done, how they’re brought forward,” Gore said, citing the obstacles of a remote work environment and considerations needed to comply with the state’s public meeting law.

For Gore, the board’s approach needs improvement.

“Our governance and our processes have to be stronger than the disasters,” he said.

Gorin was the the lone incumbent to adamantly oppose ditching the board’s annual, district-by-district leadership rotation. On the current board she been on the losing end of some bruising split votes, and she has lamented at times her lack of power even in the chair’s role.

“I think it’s important for the board dynamics to move forward and keep with our current organization of rotational board chair and vice chair,” Gorin said. “It avoids drama, intrigue and hurt feelings. We were elected to be leaders of our community. We all have the skills to preside over board governance as chair or vice chair.”

That extends to Coursey, a Santa Rosa councilman who as mayor was credited with guiding the city through the wake of the deadly October 2017 wildfires, Gorin said.

Gorin said her fellow board members, through County Adminstrator Sheryl Bratton, agreed to postpone any changes for at least the next month.

Hopkins, a natural ally with Coursey on environmental issues and other matters, called any perceived slight of the supervisor-elect incidental.

“I think it would be fun to work with him as a vice chair,” Hopkins said. “But from a systems perspective, I think it’s not productive for someone to jump in midstream. It’s not about where he is in the rotation, it’s about whether a rotation is a good system.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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