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Geoffrey Ross, Sonoma County’s chief homelessness official, resigns

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Geoffrey Ross, Sonoma County’s chief homelessness official, has stepped down amid a growing crisis over the swelling camp on the Joe Rodota Trail and increasing pressure from county supervisors, who met behind closed doors Tuesday to assess Ross’s job performance.

It was the latest in a string of confidential meetings in recent months with Ross, who as head of the county’s Community Development Commission had been tasked with spearheading the county’s response to the trail camp in west Santa Rosa.

Ross, who resigned Thursday, according to a news release from the county, had been in the top job at the commission only since last summer. He was hired in early 2018 as the agency’s assistant executive director and was promoted after the resignation of his predecessor, Margaret Van Vliet.

Barbie Robinson, the county’s health services director, is set to be named interim executive director of the Community Development Commission by the Board of Supervisors at its meeting on Tuesday. For the past several weeks, Robinson and Ross had worked together to craft proposals to address the ongoing trail crisis. The pair collaborated to secure nearly $12 million for a suite of measures officials say will help clear the Joe Rodota Trail camp.

“I am honored the board has considered me to lead the CDC on an interim basis,” Robinson said. “If approved, I plan to work with the cities and community partners to develop housing solutions that support the housing continuum to meet the needs of our community.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who said she will vote next week to approve Robinson as interim director, was quick to credit Robinson for her work to secure the $12 million, saying she took leadership during the crisis.

“Barbie Robinson played an absolutely critical role in advancing solutions,” Hopkins said. “I want to make sure we give her credit for the tremendous support she’s provided.”

The board did not report any action being taken to dismiss Ross at the end of its closed-door session on Tuesday. But that session was one of 10 closed-door meetings the Board of Supervisors had with Ross since July, and he earned the official role only in late September.

Sources within county government said he faced mounting scrutiny from several board members dismayed over the slow pace of county action to combat homelessness. Last year, as the county grappled with its response to the Joe Rodota Trail camp, and supervisors pushed for temporary sanctioned camps, Ross publicly stated his general opposition to sanctioned encampments as a viable measure to combat homelessness.

As months wore on, the encampment grew, and so did the problems. Homeless advocates have pointed to a lack of services at the trail as contributing to the public health crisis.

Neighbors have complained of break-ins and theft, feces and a burgeoning rat population that has swarmed into nearby communities. Some have banded together to call for Hopkins’ recall, citing the camp’s presence in her district and the county’s slow response.

On Monday, The Press Democrat asked each board member about staff leadership on homelessness, and Ross drew mixed reviews, including the common refrain that he was slow to act and was hyper-focused on long-term solutions.

When asked if Ross was forced to resign, Hopkins paused.

“He is leaving his position,” she said. “He tendered his resignation and it was accepted.”

His resignation letter, drawn up by the County Counsel’s Office, did not point to a reason for his departure, but Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin, as well as Hopkins, said Ross mentioned spending more time with his family, and the struggle of a commute from Sacramento.

Ross, whose salary was $174,533, will earn two months’ pay, and may be asked to assist with the transition. Through a friend, Ross declined to comment.

Ross, who previously worked with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is the second Community Development executive director to resign in the past seven months, as he took over for Van Vliet upon her resignation in June. Van Vliet resigned for personal reasons, and has since established a consulting firm.

Van Vliet, reached for comment following news of Ross’ resignation, said she was surprised given the Board of Supervisors’ recent approval of the proposal Ross and Robinson collaborated on to address the Joe Rodota Trail encampment, which has now surged to at least 220 people.

“Geoffrey is a true expert at using HUD and state programs to effectively move people from homelessness into permanent housing,” Van Vliet said via email. “His departure will leave a big hole at CDC.”

Robinson steps into the lead role in managing homelessness, and will be tasked with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Community Development Commission, as well as the Department of Health Services, which has also been under fire for consistently failing to present balanced budgets to the Board of Supervisors. That problem, detailed in news reports and grand jury documents, has not yet been resolved, although Hopkins said things have improved.

“Barbie has implemented a number of measures that have gotten DHS on a more sustainable track financially,” Hopkins said. “The work is by no means done.”

Hopkins also praised the move positioning Robinson as the point person on homelessness as sensible, saying both departments touch one of the county’s most intractable issues, and predicting good things to come from having a single voice in charge.

Robinson was hired as the assistant director of the Department of Health Services in 2016, and was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the director position in early 2017. Her nearly three decades of experience have been spent in health care administration, policy and research, including work at the federal level for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

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

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