Coursey Column

Friday, February 7, 2014

Santa Rosa’s 800-lb. gorilla

Feb. 7, 2014

When the City Council asked for advice about setting budget priorities this week, several speakers first wanted to talk about the elephant in the room.

Or, as I called it, the 800-lb. gorilla.

Or, as Kyra Janssen put it, the 500-lb. marshmallow.

Regardless of the metaphor you might use to describe it, Santa Rosa’s Measure O has become a looming presence in the annual discussion of the city budget. This isn’t because the special quarter-cent sales tax for public safety and gang prevention is a bad thing. It’s because a changing economic reality has caused Measure O to have unintended consequences that create inequities and imbalances in the budget.

Measure O, passed by the voters in 2004, requires public safety spending to increase every year – regardless of city revenues – so consequently other programs and services suffer. Because Measure O ensures that police and fire budgets will be protected from economic downturns, their share of the city budget gets larger while the amount left over for items such as parks and streets and recreation gets smaller.

It’s time for the council to ask voters to fix that “flaw,” Anne Seeley of Concerned Citizens for Santa Rosa  said at Tuesday’s council meeting. Kyra Janssen of the Santa Rosa Neighborhood Alliance said it, too. As did I.

Measure O established a “baseline” of funding for the Police and Fire Departments. Unless six of the seven council members agree, the budget for public safety can’t go below that baseline in any given year. Adding to the problem, Measure O also built in an annual budget increase for public safety that is equal to the annual rise in the local Consumer Price Index.

Those provisions made sense in 2004. Backers of Measure O wanted to make sure the new tax money wasn’t used in place of existing public safety budgets. Creating a baseline, and tying it to the CPI, ensured that Measure O money would remain a supplement to the city’s normal spending for public safety. The intentions were good.

Then came the economic collapse. City revenues tanked. Budgets in many other city departments were slashed. Staffing and services were cut to the bone.

But the Measure O baseline held firm, forcing the council in some cases to take money out of basic services to maintain the artificial requirements in public safety budgets. It soon became clear that the unintended consequence of Measure O was that police and fire budgets were taking a bigger and bigger slice of the smaller and smaller pie of city revenues.

This isn’t an insurmountable problem. As noted above, the Council can go below the required baseline funding if it can muster six votes from its seven members.

But this requirement for a supermajority requires some serious politicking. Last year, for example, several council members would have preferred putting more money into such services as parks and streets, but they eventually had to cut back their requests in order to get six members to agree on any cut in public safety’s “baseline” budget.

That’s why I, and others, asked the council this week to revisit Measure O. That’s why the Press Democrat said in an editorial last spring that amending Measure O at the ballot box is “the best chance the city has of ensuring sensible, balanced spending plans in years to come.”

Of course, this is not news to the Council. In fact, the Council’s subcommittee on long-term finances has discussed the problem repeatedly over the past year, reviewing possible scenarios for revamping Measure O that might be put before the voters.

But the issue hasn’t been discussed by the entire council, and at this point there is no plan to ask the voters to revise the rules they set in 2004. That should change.

“It’s time the full council discusses it, with an eye toward asking the voters to decide if Measure O needs to be updated to reflect our new economic reality,” I said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Council members, as is their custom, didn’t respond to the comments made in the public hearing. But they have the information that has been developed by their subcommittee on long-term finance. They have the ability to ask voters in November to fix what Anne Seeley described as “an obstruction to sensible city budgeting.”

Will they do it? 

(Read More…)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Open government should be a given, not a goal

There’s good news and bad news coming out of Santa Rosa City Hall this month.

The good news: Our mayor on Dec. 3 announced he is forming a “task force on open government.”

The bad news: Our city needs a task force on open government.

Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe in open government. But besides being the right thing to do, doing the public’s business in public also is the law. It shouldn’t require a task force to make it happen.

But, as the Press Democrat has noted repeatedly in recent editorials, City Hall has become a black hole for public information. “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors at Santa Rosa City Hall,” said the editorial on Dec. 5. “And that’s precisely the problem.”

The latest chapter in what the newspaper calls “The Curious World Inside SR City Hall” involves a secret investigation that was launched after one council member got into a heated discussion with the city attorney in an otherwise empty conference room. Voices were raised to a level that people outside the room could hear the two arguing. One of the listeners was the mayor, who decided to file a claim that the councilman – who, by the way, is a constant political thorn in the mayor’s side – had created a “hostile work environment.” An outside attorney has been retained to investigate the allegation.

(Read More…)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Chris Coursey, Campaign Kick-Off and Birthday Celebration, Nov 21, 2013

Everything went according to plan at my campaign kickoff celebration on Thursday, November 21.

Until the lights went out.

A packed house of more than 200 people was enjoying conversation, food and drink at the Arlene Francis Center when the place suddenly went completely dark. High winds apparently knocked out power to large chunks of Santa Rosa, including our historic brick flour mill in Railroad Square.

It could have been a disaster. But this was a resourceful group. Cell phones provided an electronic glow. Then a few flashlights blinked on. And eventually my son Alex and the building manager Martin figured out how to get a gasoline-powered generator up and running. I think it powered two lights.

Meanwhile, the show went on. Ed Sheffield, my master of ceremonies, brought the crowd to order. Julie Combs gave me a nice introduction. And by the light of cell phones and flashlights, I gave my first official speech as a candidate for City Council. I’ve pasted the ending below.

Thanks to everyone who came out, and thanks to those of you who said you tried to get there but couldn’t make it because of lack of parking and lack of light. I appreciate your efforts and support.

Next time, we’ll have a light show instead of a dark show. But I can’t imagine how it could be any more memorable.

Here’s the ending of my speech:

“I promise you this:  As a council member, I will serve with open ears, an open mind and an open heart. I will listen to the concerns of everyone affected by my decisions. And when it comes time to decide, my decisions will be guided not by this special interest or that special interest, but by what is in the best interest of our entire community.

“We live in a wonderful place. We – most of us here – enjoy a high quality of life. We should work to maintain that, of course. But this will be an even better place if all of us, from every neighborhood and all corners of the city, have the same opportunity to achieve that high quality of life.

“Getting there won’t be easy, but we should make it our goal. I hope you don’t think it’s too pretentious of me to quote John F. Kennedy, who died 50 years ago tomorrow, the day after my ninth birthday. When JFK talked about putting a man on the moon and other great initiatives, he said, ‘We will do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’

“That’s always been one of my favorite quotes. We all know that hard work produces the most satisfying results.

 “I’m up for this challenge.

“Are you with me?

“Let’s get to work!”

(Read More…)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Andy Lopez: Turning Tragedy into Action

The sign in front of a church in my neighborhood says, “Santa Rosa, We Need God’s Help!”

Yes, a little bit of heavenly guidance would be good right now.  But self-help from a few mere mortals is needed, too.

We’ve heard a lot of prayers in the two weeks since 13-year-old Andy Lopez was killed by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy while the boy was walking through his neighborhood carrying a BB gun designed to look like an assault rifle. We’ve heard prayers, we’ve heard shouts of protest,  we’ve heard calls for “conversation” and even “the beginning of conversation.” What we really need, though,  is action.

It’s easy for a political candidate to demand action from the people who already hold elected office. The candidate doesn’t have to forge a consensus, mobilize staff, consult with the public or wrestle with the bureaucracy. The candidate doesn’t share the difficult constraints of the decision-makers.

I’m well aware of this. Still, as I listen to the discussions in the aftermath of the death of Andy Lopez, I hear a lot of talk about what can be done “to prevent this from ever happening again,” with much less talk about what can be done right now.

(Read More…)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Another Tragic Shooting

Now that I’m a candidate for Santa Rosa City Council, I can’t write columns for the PD any more. But if I did, today I would write something very similar to a piece I wrote more than 13 years ago, after a series of police shootings in our community.
I don’t pretend to know all of the circumstances surrounding the Oct. 22 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez. I don’t post this to point fingers at the sheriff’s deputies involved, or to suggest what I would have done were I in their shoes. I post it because now, like then, many people will pretend to know, many people will point fingers, many people will suggest what the deputies should have done. But in the midst of all of that noise, only the law enforcement community – in this case the Santa Rosa Police Department acting as investigator of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office – will get to know all of the facts. Then they will turn the case over to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office for a final determination. One law enforcement agency investigates another law enforcement agency and the outcome is determined by another part of the criminal justice bureaucracy that the first two work with every day.
I’m not suggesting that process is dishonest. But its very structure raises questions and leaves doubts. Its lack of independence and transparency leaves the door open to those who will claim that the investigation favors those who wear a badge.
I believe now, as I did 13 years ago, that another, independent body should be involved in these cases. Not to tilt the scales of justice, but to give the public confidence that the process is truly fair, transparent and unbiased. Here’s what I said in my PD column in May 2000. I think the same argument applies today.



Originally Published on May 8, 2000
© 2000- The Press Democrat
COLUMN: Chris Coursey

I support the cops.

I don't blame them for shooting when someone points a gun at them. Not even if the gun is just a toy. Are they supposed to sit back and wait to see if the other guy's gun produces a bullet or a little flag marked "BANG!''?

Sorry. If a police officer points his gun at you, and tells you to drop it, then you'd better drop it whether it's a .44 or a plastic pistol. If you don't, well, we've all seen enough cop shows to know what happens next.

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