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Supervisor Lynda Hopkins takes stock of challenging year as board chair, shares plans for 2022

Hopkins reflects on 2021 experience:

On the pressures placed on county employees: “I am definitely concerned about the mental health of county staff of all levels,” Hopkins said of those facing disaster fatigue. “Department heads who feel like they carry the weight of the role in their shoulders, because they're responsible, ultimately, for the department itself in the sort of success or failure of the delivery of services. But also the line staff, you know, some of whom never left the front lines.”

On county efforts to support employees dealing with microaggressions and racism: “The Core Team is really uncovering that this isn't just happening at the department head level.” Hopkins said, referring to the county’s internal team lead by the Office of Equity. “It's happening at the line staff level as well and there may be sort of varying levels of inclusivity and sort of racial competence in different departments.”

On learning the inner-workings of county government: “I think that honestly, it takes you at least a couple of years just to kind of figure out the inner workings of the organization,” Hopkins said. “It’s like opening the back of the clock all these little gears you didn’t even think of when looking at the clock’s face.”

Lynda Hopkins began her second term as a Sonoma County supervisor in an altogether new role, as board chair.

Her first go at the rotating yearlong post last year saw her lead the five-member board through an especially challenging period, marked by a historic vaccination campaign against COVID-19, the continuing demands of fire recovery and a deepening drought, and finally, a contentious redistricting process that ended 2021 on a politically sour note.

“There are no easy years anymore,” said Hopkins.

Faced with the pandemic, the “constant threat of fire” and other emergencies, each supervisor has become an emergency manager and responder, she said.

Case in point: She was up early on Saturday in her Forestville home, relaying alerts to her west county constituents and Facebook followers about the coastal tsunami advisory spurred by an undersea volcanic explosion in the Pacific near the Tonga Islands.

“I think that we have been faced with those challenges more than in the past because of the new climate reality,” Hopkins said in a recent interview with The Press Democrat.

But if anything, the significant hurdles presented to her leadership last year have made her more assured as she begins her sixth year in elected office, she said. The experience, including as chair — a role that doubles as board spokesperson and agenda taskmaster — have given her a better understanding of the inner workings of county government.

“That has enabled me to be more effective, whether that means delivering services to west county or trying to meet the needs of the whole county and steward the organization,” she said.

Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins, center, takes notes during a meeting with Lynea Seiberlich-Wheeler, associate director of Behavioral Health at West County Health Services, left, and Debra Johnson, board chair of West County Community Services, about issues with homelessness in Guerneville on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022.            (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins, center, takes notes during a meeting with Lynea Seiberlich-Wheeler, associate director of Behavioral Health at West County Health Services, left, and Debra Johnson, board chair of West County Community Services, about issues with homelessness in Guerneville on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Now, Hopkins said, she is looking forward to returning her full focus to the west county — eager to get back to COVID-safe coffee-chats, town halls and the rural communities that make up the sprawling 5th District, spanning from Santa Rosa’s northwestern outskirts all the way up the Sonoma Coast.

Climate change, fire resiliency and bolstering government resources for unincorporated communities are high on her to-do list for 2022.

The year past and year ahead

Hopkins shared her plans for the year ahead and reflected on the year past in a series of interviews, including a sit-down session on a recent rainy Monday over a turmeric spice tea and breakfast sandwich at Avid Coffee in Sebastopol.

The setting was fitting. While chair, Hopkins had to forgo constituent coffees as duties at the helm of county government, including coordinating with department heads, claimed more of her time. This year, she expects to spend more time with constituents, working on district issues.

“This is why I wake up in the morning, excited to go to work,” Hopkins, 38, said, sitting up a bit straighter, her tone a bit more energized. “I just want to kind of reconnect with that, with the small towns and with the beautiful, beautiful topography and geography that I'm privileged to represent.”

From right, Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins talks with Debra Johnson, board chair of West County Community Services, and executive director Tim Miller about issues with homelessness in Guerneville on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
From right, Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins talks with Debra Johnson, board chair of West County Community Services, and executive director Tim Miller about issues with homelessness in Guerneville on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Hopkins, a Stanford-educated organic farmer and mother of three young children who worked for several years as a community journalist, was elected in 2016 as a newcomer to public office. Because of a rotation set before her arrival, she waited five years to serve as chair, a role with greater say over the board’s annual agenda. As she set out last year, she had identified three areas of focus: improving government transparency, fighting climate change and working toward racial equity.

Under her leadership, the county made several signficant steps toward improving access to county meetings and agendas. That included offering Spanish translation services for the entirety of the board’s meetings and posting the board’s agenda a week-and-a-half out.

Prior to 2021, the board had only offered Spanish translation for discussion items considered to be major, and did not post agendas until the Friday before the board’s regular Tuesday meetings.

Looking to build upon those changes, Hopkins says the board needs to offer Spanish translation for recordings of its meetings, as they are only available in English. She also sees an opportunity for the county to create data dashboards on its website for climate change and racial equity, similar to the data-driven dashboard the county provides for COVID.

Hopkins reflects on 2021 experience:

On the pressures placed on county employees: “I am definitely concerned about the mental health of county staff of all levels,” Hopkins said of those facing disaster fatigue. “Department heads who feel like they carry the weight of the role in their shoulders, because they're responsible, ultimately, for the department itself in the sort of success or failure of the delivery of services. But also the line staff, you know, some of whom never left the front lines.”

On county efforts to support employees dealing with microaggressions and racism: “The Core Team is really uncovering that this isn't just happening at the department head level.” Hopkins said, referring to the county’s internal team lead by the Office of Equity. “It's happening at the line staff level as well and there may be sort of varying levels of inclusivity and sort of racial competence in different departments.”

On learning the inner-workings of county government: “I think that honestly, it takes you at least a couple of years just to kind of figure out the inner workings of the organization,” Hopkins said. “It’s like opening the back of the clock all these little gears you didn’t even think of when looking at the clock’s face.”

“It’s something that I think needs to be transparent and open to the public and accessible if we really do believe in mitigating climate change and addressing social injustice,” Hopkins said.

When she stepped into the role of chair, however, Hopkins said she did not fully understand how much of her new responsibilities required internal work with the county administrator’s office and 25 other department heads.

The pandemic, already 9 months underway and in its deadliest period yet, added extra weight to the job and the need to put provincial agendas aside, Hopkins said.

“I think it was also just something that I felt was needed in the moment, particularly with a pandemic,” she said.

In 2021 the board switched to a hybrid meeting style, allowing supervisors to meet in person with constituents and staff participating via Zoom. That switch allowed the county supervisors to regain the in-person, human interaction that was largely lost in 2020.

Hopkins felt that loss deeply.

“How do you maintain culture and friendships and relationships when so much of your life is funneled through a screen?” she said.

It made board politics even more challenging, hampering one’s ability to, as she put it, “read the room.”

She tipped her hat to Supervisor Susan Gorin, who led the board the year before her, and to Chris Coursey, who began his first term last year in a world of remote work.

The demands and pitfalls of that reality did not become clear to her until later, she said.

“I wish I realized sooner.”

Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins, center, listens as Guerneville restaurant owner Crista Luedtke, right, discusses recent issues with newer homeless residents in the area with Debra Johnson, left, board chair of West County Community Services, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins, center, listens as Guerneville restaurant owner Crista Luedtke, right, discusses recent issues with newer homeless residents in the area with Debra Johnson, left, board chair of West County Community Services, on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Pandemic leadership

Under her leadership, the county’s chief set of challenges revolved around the pandemic and a fluctuating set of public health orders imposed by the state and or local health authorities working under the Board of Supervisors.

Hopkins pointed to the board’s choice in the spring to prioritize vaccinating people ages 75 and up — a “wildly unpopular” move, she said, but an ultimately successful one, according to the county.

As of Jan. 7, nearly 100% of county residents age 75 and up have been fully vaccinated, according to county data. (Countywide, the share of vaccinated eligible residents stands at about 78%.)

The board’s decisions to mandate vaccination for 4,400 county employees — the region’s largest single workforce — and its pivot between mask mandates and tailored exemptions for certain groups of vaccinated people as COVID case numbers rose and fell were similarly fraught.

The board’s pandemic governing was often done amid a backdrop of criticism, some of it openly hostile toward public health measures and the elected officials and experts making those calls.

Hopkins defended the county’s handling of those decisions.

“I think that we were really good about doing what was appropriate at the board, which was really letting science lead,” Hopkins said.

Dr. Jenny Fish, a local family physician who helped start health advocacy group HPEACE, commended the board’s use of a tiered system to prioritize vaccine distribution early on in the campaign.

“The tier system of vaccine prioritization was done with a focus on equity which was strongly advocated for by community,” Fish said. “They listened and so the fact that they included farmworkers, other essential workers in the prioritization tier honestly saved lives and made a huge difference.”

On redistricting process: ‘We didn’t have that right’

As chair, Hopkins assumed a role leading the board through other high-profile issues including deciding how to allocate PG&E wildfire settlement money and funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal stimulus bill intended to bolster local pandemic recovery efforts.

“She had a completely full deck of issues that were going to become somewhat elevated in how it was going to affect all of Sonoma County,” said Herman J. Hernandez, a Guerneville resident, realtor and board director of Los Cien, a prominent Latino leadership organization.

One such hot-button issue was the county’s decennial redistricting process, which dominated local politics at the year’s end. The board started the process in July by appointing a 19-member citizen’s advisory commission to recommend new district boundaries based on equity.

The commission’s recommendation of a single map proved divisive, as residents and city elected leaders in areas most affected by the proposal lambasted its most dramatic changes, while others pressured the board to support the commission’s recommendation.

Hopkins played a central role in shifting the board’s support to a different map, one that appeased her most vocal west county constituents, as well as critical Rohnert Park officials while enraging some members of the advisory commission. They slammed the board for sidelining their work.

Hopkins stands by the board’s chosen map, though she admitted the board could have handled the process better, particularly allowing the advisory commission time to develop more maps.

“I think my biggest lesson learned was just, in 10 years, I really pray that they have more time,” Hopkins said. “Because we needed the opportunity to do an iterative process, and we didn't have that right.”

Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins met local leaders about issues with homelessness in Guerneville on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Sonoma County supervisor Linda Hopkins met local leaders about issues with homelessness in Guerneville on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Concerns about county workforce

The vitriolic language leveled by some members of the public at supervisors and top officials during the board’s pandemic meetings also permeated other county workplaces over the past year, Hopkins said.

County department heads and employees were targets of derogatory attacks, she said, and some, especially those in the county’ public health division, have received “a number of threats,” she said.

“I definitely worry about those employees and those leaders and managers,” she said.

Supervisors have been targeted, too. Hopkins shared that a person who lives in Mendocino County recently threatened to come down and kill her. The threat prompted a nighttime discussion with a sheriff’s deputy about Hopkins’ safety. The assessment came with the understanding that the person who made the threat appeared to be struggling with their mental health, which an arrest would not necessarily resolve, Hopkins said

“It's a mess,” she said.

The well-being of county department heads and employees emerged in 2021 as a significant point of concern.

In October, outgoing General Services Director Caroline Judy announced she would be retiring in February 2022, citing disaster fatigue.

Former Economic Development Board Sheba Person-Whitley and former Health Services Director Barbie Robinson, both Black women, also left during the year for new jobs after experiencing racism and bias in their jobs. Derrick Neal, the board’s pick to replace Robinson, and a Black man himself, turned down the job citing the experiences of other county leaders of color.

The departures of Person-Whitley and Robinson, and the loss of Neal, spotlighted the discrimination people of color face in Sonoma County and the need for the county to better support its employees of color. They also left the board with key leadership roles to fill in 2022.

Hopkins said the county could have been better in communicating with the public about its response to losing leaders of color.

The county’s Office of Equity is leading a squad of representatives from 23 of the county’s 26 departments and agencies, called the Core Team, to talk with employees about what they are experiencing in the workplace.

“We could have done a better job in sharing that message,” Hopkins said.

The Core Team’s effort is the first time the county has undertaken such an endeavor, a fact Hopkins views with mixed emotions.

“That should have been done 10 years ago,” she said.

A last barb, a new year

Hopkins’ last act as chair came on Jan. 4 when the board voted in Supervisor James Gore as chair and Coursey as vice chair. The discussion rekindled some of the public tension between Hopkins and Coursey left over from their dispute over redistricting in December.

Hopkins doubled down in that discussion and called out Coursey for what she said was a violation by him of the state’s sunshine law for local governments — the Brown Act — when he privately discussed with other supervisors his decision not to take the chair seat though he was next in rotation.

When the gavel then passed to Gore, Hopkins said she could not vote in Coursey unless he agreed to return her texts and calls. Coursey ultimately agreed.

In an interview, Hopkins called the conversation “awkward” but touted the outcome as “wonderful.”

“It felt a little bit like dentistry, pulling teeth perhaps, but I do feel like we got where we needed as a board,” Hopkins said. “At the end of the day we’re humans. We all make mistakes and we need to set aside those interpersonal conflicts for the sake of the community and I do believe we got there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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