Chris Coursey named new Santa Rosa mayor

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Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Coursey was named mayor Tuesday, and the man who cast the deciding vote for him, 26-year-old Jack Tibbetts, was tapped as vice mayor, a shakeup that puts a progressive at the helm of North Coast’s largest city for the first time since Susan Gorin was named to lead the council in 2008.

The vote represented a snub to Tom Schwedhelm, a first-term councilman and former police chief, who had aspired to the largely ceremonial post and for whom Tibbetts had expressed admiration, especially for his work on homelessness.

But after considering feedback he’d received from dozens of supporters in recent days, Tibbetts sided with Coursey, whose thoughtfulness on issues like rent control he has praised.

“It’s a huge honor to be elected mayor of the town that I love,” Coursey said.

Coursey was nominated by Julie Combs and won on a 4-3 vote, with Combs, Tibbetts and Chris Rogers supporting him. Mayor John Sawyer, Ernesto Olivares supported Schwedhelm. The vote was immediately retaken to be made unanimous. Combs then nominated Tibbetts for vice mayor, and he was quickly approved on a 7-0 vote.

The unanimous votes belied the schism between the three more conservative members of the council — Schwedhelm, Sawyer and Olivares — and the more liberal members like Coursey, Combs and Rogers.

Tibbetts, the youngest council member in city history, has been harder to read. He received broad support from across the political spectrum, from environmental groups like Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action to business lobbies like the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and the Sonoma County Alliance.

His campaign raised more money than any other candidate in the past election — $76,000 — and he was the top vote-getter, with 21.1 percent of the vote, followed by Combs, Rogers and Olivares.

The vote was a baptism by fire for the political newcomer. While a student at UC Berkeley he pushed for a tax on oil and gas extraction, but his local political experience has been limited to a year and a half on the Board of Public Utilities, an appointment made by Gary Wysocky.

Coursey, 62, was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Press Democrat who left the paper in 2007 to become spokesman for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit district. He left in 2011.

He ran for council in 2014, vowing to be an independent voice on the council, and was easily the top vote-getter, winning 19.6 percent of the vote compared to 15.4 for John Sawyer and 15.1 percent for Schwedhelm.

As other council members did, Coursey praised Sawyer’s two-year tenure as mayor and said he had “big shoes to fill,” saying he’d be satisfied if he does half as good a job as mayor.

Combs agreed and said Sawyer had been a “remarkable leader for our city” and had “blossomed” in the role.

Coursey also thanked voters for having the wisdom to elect the two new council members, Tibbetts and Rogers, “who are smart and work hard.” He also thanked them for a approving measures N and O, which extended and amended, respectively, two key sales tax measures. Coursey said that showed voters believe the city is on the right path.

While he gave few specifics about what he wanted to focus on as major, Coursey did say he hoped to strengthen the city’s commitment to open government and the relationships between the council and city staff and the public.

“Without that bond, the team doesn’t work real well,” Coursey said.

The evening also contained plenty of praise for the two outgoing council members, Wysocky, who served two terms, and Erin Carlstrom, who served one.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Editor’s note: This story has been edited to accurately reflect the oil industry legislation Tibbetts supported as a student at UC Berkeley.

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