Friday, November 6, 2015
A Year on the City Council
It's really hard to believe that a year has passed since you and thousands more of our friends and neighbors helped me win a seat on the Santa Rosa City Council. Thank you!
Today, I want to let you know a little about what serving on the Council has been like for me, about what we've accomplished and about what to expect in the next several months.
That covers a lot of ground, so this is a long letter. I've divided it up so you can skip to the parts that interest you most. If you want to know about my life as a Council member, scroll down to the section about "fun." For a look at a typical week in the life of a Council member, check out the part about "Council duties." If you want to know what the Council is getting done, skip to "Council accomplishments." If you just want to help me and show your support, read the box on the right and click the link.
And if you want to read it all, just dive right in:
"Are you having any fun?"
I hear that question frequently. It usually comes with a wry smile, and at least the suggestion of a figurative poke in the ribs.
So my reply often comes as a surprise.
"Why yes, I am having fun. I'm engaged, excited and optimistic about our city."
It's true. I can honestly say that every day since last Nov. 4, I have appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to work on your behalf making Santa Rosa the kind of place we all want it to be.
Today, I'd like to let you know what the Council has accomplished this past year, and what's coming up in the next several months. I'd also like to ask for your help in closing the books on last year's campaign and in keeping the doors open on my political future (see sidebar, and thanks!)
There wasn't much time to ease into life as a council member. About two minutes after I was sworn in last Dec. 2, the Council selected John Sawyer as Mayor and, to my surprise, unanimously elected me to be Vice Mayor. That immediately elevated my profile and expanded my responsibilities, which consequently steepened my learning curve. With the help of a great staff led by City Manager Sean McGlynn, it didn't take long for me to get up to speed.
A variety of Council duties
People often ask what my "typical" week looks like. Every week is different, but there are some consistencies. Rather than starting on Monday, my Council week starts on Thursdays, when meeting agendas and background reports come out. That gives me plenty of homework to do before Tuesday's Council meeting. In addition to reading reports and doing research on agenda items, I spend a lot of time responding to concerns and questions from constituents. Some weeks, particularly recently as the Council has tackled issues related to affordable housing, I'll receive and respond to hundreds of constituent emails.
Weekends present many opportunities to attend community events, ranging from an Earth Day celebration in Courthouse Square to an Aztec dance at Roseland's Bayer Farm to a party to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Corrick's, the stationery and gift store on Fourth Street. Mondays you can find me at my neighborhood coffee shop, having a series of meetings throughout the day with citizens concerned about a range of issues from rent control to pickle ball. Tuesdays are Council meeting days, and it's not unusual to start before noon with a closed session regarding a lawsuit or a personnel issue, and finish after 9 p.m. following several hours of public testimony and debate. About once a month, if we find ourselves with a short meeting, the Council will go out to dinner together afterward.
That last item may seem trivial, but it represents a huge change at City Hall. This Council is like all elected bodies - we don't always agree with each other. But, unlike some previous Councils, we respect each other and find ways to get along despite our differences. An occasional meal together helps cement our commonalities.
In addition to Council duties, Council members also serve on a variety of city, county and regional boards and commissions. My assignments include membership on the Policy Team of the Santa Rosa Violence Prevention Partnership (formerly known as the Mayor's Gang Task Force), the Council's Downtown Subcommittee, which this year has been dealing with issues related to the reunification of Courthouse Square, and the Council's Long-Term Financial Subcommittee, which is charged with taking a long view of the city's budget. I'm the council's alternate to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, and stay abreast of transportation issues including the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit project. The Mayor also recently appointed me to a new Council subcommittee to study rent-stabilization options.
As Vice Mayor, I meet each Wednesday with the Mayor, City Manager, City Attorney and City Clerk to plan and review agendas for future council meetings. I also fill in for the mayor when he's not available to run a meeting or appear for a ribbon cutting, a proclamation presentation or other civic duties.
And, in my spare time, I still need to earn a living (the Council job pays $800 a month). So I work at home doing freelance writing and public relations consulting.
What's the Council accomplishing?
In February, the Council held a two-day retreat to discuss our goals and priorities for the coming year. The consensus was that we should focus on Affordable Housing, Homelessness, Economic Development and the Annexation of Roseland. I'm happy to report that with the support of a dedicated and enthusiastic staff, the Council is making progress on all of those priorities. Here's a more specific breakdown:
Affordable Housing - Santa Rosa, like the rest of Sonoma County and almost every other community in coastal California, has reached a crisis point related to the high cost of housing. While employment numbers have recovered from the recent recession, wages have not kept up with the cost of living, rents have skyrocketed and vacancy rates have fallen to close to zero. In response, the Council has launched a comprehensive effort to review existing city policies and explore new ones with an eye toward increasing the city's stock of all types of housing and reviewing options for preserving affordable homes. This includes, among many items, a critical review of all building and development fees, a fresh look at policies related to inclusionary zoning (requiring a mix of affordability in new housing developments), consideration of incentives to encourage all types of housing development and an in-depth study on rent control.
Rent control has been the hot-button issue in this effort, prompting the great majority of those hundreds of emails I mentioned earlier. Because of the complex legal and economic implications that surround rent control - or rent stabilization as the full menu of policies is known - the Council has hired a consultant to work with staff and a Council subcommittee to develop a comprehensive report on the subject. That work is due to be completed in January.
The end product of this effort is still a few months away. But I can report now that the Council - and our city staff - is fully focused on and engaged with this issue, and I have confidence that we will develop a plan that will improve and increase the stock of affordable homes in our community.
Homelessness - This Council has increased our city's response to homelessness in ways never attempted previously in Santa Rosa. Following the new federal policy known as "housing first," we have added direct outreach to homeless individuals on city streets and in hidden encampments, offering access to mental health services, substance-abuse treatment, portable toilet and shower facilities and, of course, housing. Partnering with Catholic Charities and their Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST), this program targets those most in need. And, for those willing and able, we're even providing jobs, putting homeless people to work cleaning up the mess often left behind when encampments are moved or abandoned. These are all new efforts for Santa Rosa, adding a new dimension to the services that are still provided at our traditional emergency shelters.
Economic Development - This is an effort that touches on almost everything we do as a city, including housing and homelessness. Making Santa Rosa a desirable place to live, work and play is the goal of every council member and every staff person, and our work on every issue reflects that. But the connection to Economic Development is easier to see in some issues than others. For example, the review and reorganization of our Community Development Department will make doing business with our city an understandable and efficient process. Whether it's buying a bus pass, paying a parking ticket or building an addition on your home, we're working to improve your experience when you deal with the City. Also directly connected with Economic Development are our efforts to create mixed-use development along the railroad corridor, particularly near our city's two SMART train stations. The same goes for our work toward the reunification of Courthouse Square, which for more than 20 years has been identified by experts in planning, urban design and economics as the key toward kickstarting a revitalized downtown. We look forward to creating a downtown with an identifiable center surrounded by all types of housing, businesses and services. Our downtown will attract people not just to work, eat and shop, but to live in a wide variety of housing and visit the kinds of attractions and hotels that will put Santa Rosa at the true center of Sonoma County's tourist economy.
Roseland Annexation - The 7,000 residents of Roseland consider themselves residents of Santa Rosa, and they are surrounded by the city. But the reality is that while they contribute greatly to the culture and vitality of our community, and while they have a real stake in the future of our city, they have no voice in that future. Annexation, which has been promised and studied for more than two decades, will give them that voice. It also will provide city services such as police, planning, roads and parks. And it will come at a cost, because the tax base that the Roseland annexation will bring to the city will not completely cover the cost of those services or of the new and improved infrastructure that will be needed over time. Unlike past efforts that unraveled over cost questions, annexation is moving ahead now with enthusiastic support from the City Council and Sonoma County Supervisors, bringing us closer now than ever to truly making Southwest Santa Rosa a part of our city.
These were our top priorities at the beginning of this year, and they continue to be our priorities as we move toward 2016. We're making real progress on all of them.
And, we're doing other good things, too. Our new community engagement director, Jaime Penaherrera, is fulfilling a key goal to increase openness and transparency in city government. The council recently authorized funding for body-worn cameras for most of our police officers. We're "Re-Imagining CityBus," a transformation of our transit system. We've added maintenance staff to our Parks Department. We've turned 6,000 street lights back on, and every one turned off during the recession will be back in operation by next summer.
So, yes, I'm having fun. There's nothing more enjoyable and worthwhile than working toward the betterment of our community. If you have other thoughts about how we ought to be doing that, please let me know.
And, since it's been a long time since I asked way up at the top of this report, please consider showing your support through a contribution here.
Thanks for reading,