Coursey Column

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Message from the Mayor

Dear Friends,  

On my desk in the mayor's office, right under my computer monitor where I can see it every day, is a postcard:

Dear Chris Coursey, it says in neat schoolgirl print, Today we prayed for you in Sunday School.

God Bless, 

Holly H.

I'm not much of a praying man, but I'll take all the support I can get. So I look at - and appreciate - Holly's postcard every single day.

So far - knock on wood - it appears to be working.

Life as mayor, which began back in mid-December as we headed into the wettest winter ever, is good.

As well as challenging, frustrating, uplifting, rewarding, gratifying, maddening, mystifying, disappointing, exhilarating and exhausting.

And today's only Monday.

Seriously, this job is all of that and more. Mostly, though, it's a chance to make a positive difference in our community. And since that's what motivated me to run for office in the first place, this job is exactly what I hoped it would be.

There are tough days, no doubt. On June 6, Santa Rosa voters rejected our City Council's rent-control ordinance by a thin margin at the polls after the most expensive political campaign ever waged in Santa Rosa. That stung - not so much because our policy was reversed, but because thousands of our neighbors were counting on that policy to relieve them of the fear and anxiety of living in our volatile rental market. They were counting on rent control to bring some certainty and stability to their lives, and it was taken away.

That was a tough day.

But there are really good days, too. On June 7, I got to preside over a triple wedding at the Downtown Market in Courthouse Square. Beautiful brides and nervous grooms stood up in front of friends, family and hundreds of strangers and professed their love for each other. The vice-mayor and I lead them through their vows, and the whole community cheered their unions. We toasted their future with sparkling wine and the crowd - many of whom had no idea they were headed to a wedding that evening -- shared the couples' first dance.

That was a great day. 

Yes, some days are better than others in this job. It goes with the territory. Even when you do something right, there's always someone waiting in the wings to tell you it's wrong.

But that's just politics. And given the state of political discourse in our country right now, it's to be expected.

As mayor, I focus my energy more on policy than politics. On the policy side of the ledger, Santa Rosa has been making some big strides. You already know about some of our decisions, because as the largest city in the North Bay and the fifth-largest in the Bay Area, what we do here gets attention. But a lot goes unnoticed, too. That's the point of this little newsletter: to keep you up to date with what's going on in your city government.

Let's start with what I call "The Trifecta of Big Ideas on the Back Burner." Whether you support these projects or not, the consensus of the community and the overwhelming majority of several city councils have agreed for more than 20 years that three key initiatives would be good for Santa Rosa. But, for one reason or another (or another or another or another), none has made it to the finish line. Until this year. In 2017, we will finally see the completion of

  • Courthouse Square -  Every urban planner, architect, landscape designer or other expert on city infrastructure who has looked at downtown Santa Rosa over the past 30 years agreed on one thing: Good things will happen when the bifurcated Courthouse Square is reunited. After decades of studies and design, the City Council in 2016 approved a final design and construction funding, and the new Courthouse Square debuted this May. Just as predicted, good things are happening. The Downtown Market has become a can't-miss street party every Wednesday evening in the Square. A boutique hotel is under construction in the historic Empire Building and the entire block on the west side of the Square. A restaurant, a brew pub and a nightclub are under construction on the east side. I believe this is just the beginning of the renaissance of downtown Santa Rosa.
  • Roseland Annexation - When a group of kids from Roseland Elementary School visited City Hall recently, I described unincorporated Roseland as "the hole in the donut" of Santa Rosa. An 11-year-old girl took issue with that. "It's not the hole in the donut," she said. "It's the jelly in the donut!" She's right. Roseland, the most diverse and vibrant neighborhood in our city, needs to be recognized and appreciated as an official part of Santa Rosa. The annexation of Roseland has been on the agendas of the City Council and Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for more than 25 years, but financial disagreements repeatedly sank efforts to make it happen. Spurred in large part by the shooting of 14-year-old Andy Lopez (not in Roseland, but in another unincorporated part of Southwest Santa Rosa), a financial deal was hammered out in 2016. The annexation process is underway (a hearing before the Local Agency Formation Commission is scheduled for Aug. 2) and, with luck, the jelly of Roseland will officially be part of the donut of Santa Rosa by the end of the year.
  • SMART - This isn't a city project, but it has huge implications for Santa Rosa and the North Bay. And, before I worked for the city, I worked for SMART, so I include it here. As I write this, the commuter rail project is in the final stages of testing and permitting by the Federal Railroad Administration. Excursion trains are running. And soon (fingers crossed) a full schedule of commuter trains will be running between the Sonoma County Airport and downtown San Rafael. SMART will not only provide an alternative to Highway 101 traffic jams, but it will provide a transportation backbone around which we can build transit-oriented development in downtown Santa Rosa and around the Coddingtown station. It will make Santa Rosa more attractive to younger residents and the kind of forward-thinking companies that will employ them. Whether you ride the train or not, it's going to be good for your city.

Those are the big things. But as Mayor, I also get to take part in small things every day that make a difference in Santa Rosa. Over the 2½ years I've been on the Council, we've made hundreds of decisions that affect your life every day, from water and sewer service to police protocols to parking meter rates. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Indivisible City - in response to our president's actions and words against immigrants who are our friends, neighbors, co-workers, the City Council in February reaffirmed our Police Department policies to disregard the immigration status of people contacted by officers, and to declare Santa Rosa an Indivisible City that will safeguard the civil rights, safety and dignity of all our residents.
  • Housing for All - The council adopted a Housing Action Plan that, through more than two dozen measures, encourages the development of 5,000 housing units in Santa Rosa by 2024, with half of those units to be affordable to residents who earn less than the median income.
  • Increased spending on homeless services by more than 100 percent over the past two years, and established a more pro-active, housing-first approach to dealing with homeless issues in our city. This month, we begin a pilot project aimed at providing alternative shelter and much-needed social services to people living in some of the larger unsanctioned encampments in our city, starting with "Homeless Hill" at the south end of Farmers Lane and moving downtown to the Highway 101 underpasses. Over  the next few months, I hope our Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will be announcing new city-county collaborations on a variety of homeless services.
  • Community Engagement -- Fully staffed our Office of Community Engagement and made strides to better engage the public in city government. We still have work to do in this area, but I am pleased to see our new Community Engagement Director Caluha Barnes working with the Community Advisory Board to reach into our neighborhoods for input and ideas, and I expect to see these efforts expand in the coming year.
  • Passed measures O & N in November, reforming the financial provisions of the Measure O public safety tax and extending the life of the quarter-cent sales tax that since 2010 has stabilized the city's general fund revenues.
  • Completed Bayer Park and Farm, a hugely popular city park in Roseland that includes a wide array of programs for area children and community gardens that provide healthy produce for neighbors.
  • Affordable Housing funding -- Provided $2.75 million in long-term loans to four affordable-housing projects, helping each one achieve the financial footing needed to get construction under way. These projects include 7 units of housing for homeless veterans, 4 sweat-equity homes through Habitat for Humanity, 20 very-low-income apartments for women transitioning out of a substance-abuse program, and a 25-unit subdivision with more than 20 percent below-market for-sale units in Rincon Valley.
  • Approved the 185-unit DeTurk Winery Village project on Donahue Street, just a couple of blocks from the downtown SMART station. In addition to providing needed rental housing in a walkable, transit-oriented downtown neighborhood, this project includes 15 units of housing for tenants qualifying as "very low income," with no subsidy from the city.
  • "Re-imagined" our CityBus transit system to provide more frequent service along the city's most heavily traveled corridors, such as Mendocino Avenue and Sebastopol Road. Bus routes also were changed to better serve the new SMART commuter train service.
  • Climate statement -- Joined mayors from around the nation in re-affirming our commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, despite our president's withdrawal from the agreement.
  • Planning Department -- Took a variety of steps to make our Planning and Economic Development Department more user-friendly, whether you're there to get a permit for a small remodeling job or a major housing project.
  • Community Connector -- Moved forward with plans for a bike-pedestrian bridge over Highway 101 between Santa Rosa Junior College and Coddingtown. Using state and federal funds made available through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, environmental and design work is underway.
  • Passed Measure D in June, which establishes taxes on cannabis businesses in Santa Rosa. Staff worked collaboratively with the cannabis industry to develop this measure, and it was unopposed at the polls. Staff also is working on a comprehensive city policy regarding cannabis as we head into the new world of fully legal cannabis in California.

These are just a few of our successes during the past two and a half years. There have been setbacks, too. And disagreements. But, I'm proud to say, despite the disagreements and differences on this Council of seven very different personalities, we have found a way to work together cohesively and without rancor. In the end, all of us are trying to do what we each believe is best for Santa Rosa, and I believe we all respect that in each other.

In addition to working every day with the Council, I also strive to work every day with you. I serve as mayor to represent your hopes, dreams and aspirations for our city - not just mine. I receive constant input from residents by way of phone calls, emails and daily interactions on the street, at events, in the gym, at the grocery store. All of that input is welcome and I invite you to join in the conversation.

You can always reach me at my office, 543-3017, or by email, Even better  -- drop by Courthouse Square at lunch time on the first or third Monday of the month, where I hang out to catch some rays and shoot the breeze with whoever wanders by. Don't forget to pack a lunch!

   I look forward to hearing from you soon,

Chris Coursey
City of Santa Rosa

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Notes from the Campaign Trail

Maybe it was an envelope with an unusual combination of postage stamps. Maybe it was the mysterious taxi cab that pulled into your driveway. Or perhaps it was the 12-year-old knocking on your door.

One way or another, you may have noticed a difference in my campaign for Santa Rosa City Council.

It makes sense that I run a different kind of campaign, because I’m a different kind of candidate. I don’t come from a background in politics. My career has been covering politics as a journalist, not practicing them as a politician. And I wanted my campaign to reflect that difference.

That choice was easy, and natural. Early on I decided that mine would be a broad and deep “grassroots” campaign, with support from throughout the community. I wouldn’t get a ton of big donations, but I would get hundreds and hundreds of small ones. I would lean more heavily on volunteers than I would on paid consultants.

If that resulted in a few unscripted and maybe even “unprofessional” moments, that was OK with me. In fact, some of these little vignettes are what helped me get through the last 14 months since I first announced my candidacy.

The Stamp Collection

Last November, at my campaign kickoff event, Nancy and Bob casually asked if I could use some postage stamps for my campaign. Naturally I said yes – even in this digital age snail mail remains a key piece of the communications strategy in any campaign. That, and I had a lot of thank-you letters to send after that first fundraising party.

A few days later I received a big envelope from Nancy and Bob containing hundreds and hundreds of commemorative stamps. Marilyn Monroe stamps. Olympic stamps. Heroes of Baseball stamps. State flag stamps. Stamps of almost every denomination (except the one I needed most – the first-class mail stamp worth 49 cents).

This was a boon, but also a bit of a burden. I’ve sent about 400 thank-you letters in this campaign, and each one required searching through the collection for a combination of stamps adding up to somewhere close to 49 cents.

Luckily, my neighbor Aubrey – who is getting up there in years and doesn’t feel up to walking precincts or making phone calls – asked how she could help with the campaign. So, for the last few months, she’s been stuffing envelopes and licking stamps, creating colorful mosaics on paper that land in your mailboxes. Sometimes she puts a little more postage than necessary on a letter, but never too little. Not a single letter has come back. Thanks, Nancy and Bob! And thanks, Aubrey!

The Taxi Driver

It’s the kind of email every candidate loves to receive: “As I heartfully hope to look forward to your success for the City Council, I would like to let you know my interest to work for your campaign.”

It was signed by a man named Tecle, who I later learned came to Santa Rosa just three years ago from the east-African country of Eritrea. He is taking classes at Santa Rosa Junior College (including political science, in which students are encouraged to get a little campaign experience), and he makes his living driving a cab.

Tecle arrived at my house first thing on a Monday morning, ready to deliver yard signs to people who had requested them through my web site. A couple of weeks later, he came to an evening meeting at my house at which we were training volunteers for phone banking. Though his English is much better than my Tigrinya (the primary language of his native land), his accent is strong, and he had trouble with the phone bank duties. But no worries! He has his taxi, and I have signs, and Tecle has been a stalwart volunteer. Thanks, Tecle!


The 12-year-old

I imagine that if I had asked my daughter when she was 12 years old to spend the last weekend of her summer vacation knocking on strangers’ doors to spread the word about a political candidate she had never met, her eyes would have rolled right out of her head.

And maybe Carla rolled her eyes a little bit, too, when her mom Trina said they were going to walk precincts for me on that fine summer morning in the middle of August. Maybe Carla groaned inwardly, and wondered, “Why me?”

But she showed up at my house that morning with a smile on her face and an attitude that said, “Let’s get this done.” She grabbed a name tag and a map and a packet of voters’ names, and she and Trina hit the streets. Four hours later, Carla was slumping a bit and her feet were sore, but she still wore a big smile. Thanks, Carla!

The Stapler

Four hundred yard signs don’t make all that impressive a pile. But once you start folding them in half and doggedly stapling each one to a steel-wire frame, the pile looks much bigger. And when you realize that you and three friends just spent two hours putting signs together and you still have 350 left to go, that pile looks huge.

So when the email arrived later that day from Sharon, and she offered her skills and her heavy-duty stapler to put signs together for me, I jumped at the chance. I asked, How many? Well, she said, I could do 100, and I can get my neighbors to put up a bunch of them, and I’ve already been emailing friends and family to vote for you. I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. Thanks, Sharon!


The Trouper

Earla and Kelly were some of the first people I met when I started this journey 14 months ago. The Oakmont couple got in touch to tell me they loved my columns in the Press Democrat and my work for SMART. They endorsed me and sent a check. They showed up at my kickoff event last November in Railroad Square, and when a windstorm blew out the lights for the whole neighborhood, somehow found their way to their car and got home safely.

They got home safely after my fundraiser last month, too, but Earla tripped on something in her house that night, fell and broke her wrist. The very next evening, smiling through her pain, she greeted me at the annual dinner of the Oakmont Democratic Club.

Earla had surgery on that wrist a couple of weeks later, but still co-hosted a house party for me with a few dozen of her Oakmont neighbors. When she gets her cast off, I want to shake her hand and tell her how much I appreciate her perseverance and support Thanks, Earla!

These are just a few stories from among the dozens and dozens of big favors and small kindnesses I’ve been lucky enough to receive along the campaign trail. And while my volunteers have been good to me, they’ve also been treated well in the community with offers of water or bathrooms as they walk precincts, with gratitude from voters who appreciate a real person at the door or a real voice on the phone and with words of encouragement from citizens who thank them for giving their time to get involved in our city.

As I write this, we’re down to the last few days before the Nov. 4 election. There’s still a lot of work to do, still plenty of doorbells to ring and still a bunch of phone numbers to be dialed. But before the votes get counted, I wanted to stop and take a minute to thank all of the dozens and dozens of volunteers who have donated a piece of their lives in the past year to become a piece of this campaign. I couldn’t have done this without them.

Now – who wants to go precinct walking this weekend???

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Changing Our Relationship with City Government

During my campaign for City Council, I’ve been talking a lot about the need to change the culture of City Hall. I truly believe I can be part of that change when I get elected.

But changing a culture requires more than just replacing the people at the top. It demands altered behavior and different relationships among all of those involved. And a big step toward that broader change occurred Sept. 25 when nearly 100 members of the community gathered in the City Council chambers to talk about reconstructing the relationship between Santa Rosa’s government and Santa Rosa’s citizens.

“Historically this has been more like a parent-child relationship,” said Matt Leighninger, who led the session. He was referring to the kind of relationship where a parent lays down the law, and when the child asks why, the answer is usually something along the lines of, “Because I said so.”

“The idea is to change that into a more adult-adult relationship.”

Leighninger is executive director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a Washington-based group that is focused on increasing public participation in government. He was brought here by Santa Rosa Together, a local grassroots effort in pursuit of that same goal.

It was significant that the session took place at City Hall. Because to date – with a couple of individual exceptions – the leadership of Santa Rosa government and the efforts of Santa Rosa Together have not crossed paths.

“That the city is a co-sponsor is a very good sign,” said Tanya Narath, who chairs the city’s Community Advisory Board and is a member of Santa Rosa Together. “Things are changing.”

That’s good news.

If you don’t spend much time at City Hall, you’ll need some background at this point. City Council meetings on Tuesday nights are usually sparsely attended, and good-government groups for years have talked about ways to increase public involvement. Despite those efforts, though, such involvement often includes either a few die-hard attendees who are allotted three minutes of speaking time on any given item or – if something controversial pops up on the agenda – groups of residents agitated about a single issue who usually leave frustrated by a process that makes the word “participation” seem like cruel irony.

And it’s not getting any better. As Leighninger pointed out, today’s citizens have more information and communication resources available than ever before, yet these “21st Century residents are dealing with 20th Century institutions.”

“You’ve got people with 24-7 access to the internet, instant information and communication,” he said, “versus (a council that allows only) three-minute public comments. It ends up being frustrating to both sides.”

It’s not just a problem in Santa Rosa, of course. But it is exacerbated here by a Council that is split along historic fissures and for the past year has been further divided by personal animosities.

Some of that will change with the election of three new council members in November. But the council will still need to do council business, in a formal setting, with a formal process each Tuesday evening.

What Leighninger and the group at City Hall were talking about goes beyond that process, though. It would require, as Leighninger put it, “treating citizens like adults.” That means providing them with more information, giving them a chance to tell their own stories and experiences in a public setting, offering them choices that go beyond “yes or no,” providing them with chances to take action and – perhaps more than anything else – bestowing upon them “legitimacy.”

That can’t be done in three minutes.

Nor can it be explained in this short space. But you can view Leighninger’s presentation here. And you can stay in touch with Santa Rosa Together by emailing its leader, Hank Topper, at

There are other efforts, too, to make city government more accessible to the people who don’t work at City Hall. The city’s Task Force on Open Government is working to increase transparency and improve communication between city government and the public. At its Sept. 29 meeting to discuss recommendations to the City Council, the number-one bullet point was to “Develop a Culture That Values Public Engagement.” The whole report is here.

These are laudable efforts. But they need to be shepherded through the bureaucracy and legal codes that govern public meetings. And they need support from the City Council.

Which reminds me: There’s an election on November 4. Nine candidates are on the ballot seeking three open seats. One of them keeps talking about changing the status quo at City Hall. That would be me – the outsider who hasn’t worked at City Hall and offers a whole new perspective on the way city government can and should work.

Please keep that in mind when you cast your vote.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A “reasonable” killing in Santa Rosa?

The kid in the picture is me, age about 9, when I lived in Hawaii. It may have been Christmas Day, given that I’m dressed for church and toting a shiny new Daisy BB gun.

On Monday, we learned that a law enforcement officer could spot this kid on a Santa Rosa street, and – within seconds – “reasonably” assess him as a lethal threat and then pump seven bullets into his young body.

I won’t argue with the legality of District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s decision in the case of the shooting of Andy Lopez by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus. But let’s not pretend that just because something is legal that it is right. What happened last October on Moorland Avenue may in fact be legally “reasonable,” but it should never be acceptable.

No child should be shot dead by a cop in his neighborhood for walking down the street carrying a toy gun.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

This is NOT a recording…

May 12, 2014

A local political consultant was quoted in the Press Democrat asserting that campaign robo-calls are no more annoying than campaign mailers.

I beg to differ, but I guess it's a matter of opinion. What do you think?

Direct contact with voters is crucial to any candidate's campaign for Santa Rosa City Council. In the next six months, my goal is to contact every single voter in this city. That's almost 78,000 people.

So, don't be surprised if you see me at your front door, or in your mailbox, or on your computer, or at your service club, or around your neighborhood, or at a community event, or all of the above.

Just don't expect to hear my voice on a robo-call. If you get a call from me, it will be a live voice on the other end.

If you get a robo-call from someone else, though, it will have to be made under some tough new rules adopted this month by the City Council. At the urging of Councilwoman Julie Combs, the council agreed to better regulate political robo-calls in Santa Rosa, and to make sure that voters get a clear picture of just who it is at the other end of the phone.

That means every robo-call must have an "opt-out" function allowing you to avoid future calls. It means any candidate or interest group that funds robo-calls must file a report with the city clerk. It requires independent expenditure committees to file a transcript of their robo-calls with the clerk, and to include in the robo-call information about who paid for the calls, their telephone number and a statement that the call was not approved by a candidate or a candidate's campaign committee. It prohibits "spoofing," or using a false number for a caller ID.

These new rules won't stop robo-calls, which have become more popular in recent years and in 2012 played a major role in local elections for City Council and the Board of Supervisors. But they will provide openness, transparency and disclosure about who is behind them.

So, if you're as annoyed by robo-calls as I am, you'll know who to blame. 

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