It’s midday on Sunday, July 31, and just behind Micah Posner, families are out for a Sunday afternoon stroll in San Lorenzo Park. His face framed by a long, unkempt beard, Posner sighs, flipping through notebook pages of scribbled lists—reflections on the last four years. Just back from a long vacation in the Sierra Nevadas with his family, he’s explaining why he’s decided not to seek another term on the Santa Cruz City Council.
“On the one hand, I felt like I had done my sacrifice and I was ready to be done, but I was considering running again if there weren’t other people running issue-based campaigns,” Posner says. “But there are at least two, if not more, so I feel I’m not needed. The idea of running in competition with [council candidates] Steve Schnaar and Drew Glover is totally unappealing. In fact, I would much rather support them.”
Posner was already known as a community activist when he ran for Santa Cruz City Council in 2012 and finished as the third-highest vote getter out of eight candidates vying for four seats. Formerly the director of People Power (now called Bike Santa Cruz County), Posner campaigned not just on transportation, but on a variety of issues, including a vision for economic development and half-jokingly promising “a web designer in every garage and a farmstand on every block.”
Looking back on his term, Posner points to his work on the Rail Trail as a success, as well as his part in halting a proposed desalination plant on the Westside. He played a role in creating the Water Supply Advisory Committee, which put Santa Cruz on a path toward alternatives to desal, he notes. Others have praised his willingness to meet with people in the community, which they say has made city government more accessible.
Many would argue, though, that Posner has had a hard time meeting the bar he set for himself as a progressive candidate four years ago. He has appeared to struggle making relationships on the council, and he admits to feeling disillusioned by how many city decisions are made behind closed doors instead of in public. During meetings, his often long-winded comments about seemingly minute issues have at times been met with heavy sighs, or even eye rolls, from his colleagues. His contributions to council conversation can be jarring, as he sometimes interrupts other councilmembers. He often stares wistfully into the audience, expressing his frustration with an issue before casting the lone dissenting “nay” on a 6-1 vote.
Reed Searle, local longtime activist and Posner supporter, says the councilmember doesn’t enjoy being in the minority, but Posner simply hasn’t had the votes to work on a wider-ranging progressive agenda. “He’s not going to change those views,” says Searle, who views Posner as the spiritual successor to the old-school progressives who often dominated the City Council in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Posner, who says that his activist background for the most part prepared him to take heat in public life, feels that politicians should never be ashamed of holding unpopular positions.
“Part of what the problem with politics is is people aren’t willing to not be liked,” he says. “It’s a little too chummy, to be honest. You have council members that won’t be outvoted unless they are with the majority. To me, that’s a real problem in democracy. That’s one of the things I am most proud of. I gave voice to disagreement in a way that’s respectful.”
Fred Keeley, former Santa Cruz County treasurer and state legislator, says that Posner’s approach of digging his heels in on so many different issues comes from his background in activism.
“Micah evokes strong reactions from people and he has a style that evokes strong reactions, strong support, strong opposition,” says Keeley, probably Posner’s highest-profile supporter four years ago, and a mentor to him since then. “We all see Micah, and we see the same behavior, and we draw different conclusions from it.”
Posner, who has endorsed Steve Schnaar, Drew Glover and Steve Pleich for City Council this time around, says his term on the council was sometimes difficult for his young family. His decision to not run again was also influenced by the backlash he incurred from an illegal housing unit he had in his backyard until recently. For seven years, he had rented out the 120-square-foot shed, complete with a bed, electricity and water hookups, which didn’t have city permits or zoning approvals.
City Water Commissioner David Baskin says he has always liked Posner as a councilmember and a person, although the two have often disagreed politically. But Baskin, a retired lawyer, says he lost respect for Posner when news broke of him renting out a space that did not meet health and safety requirements. Baskin further railed on the city councilmember for failing to properly disclose the income publicly. “The notion that a person would make those kinds of decisions and then want to be our legislator doesn’t work for me,” Baskin says.
Posner immediately made the unit fully compliant with the city’s Planning Department rules, evicting his tenant, and city officials did not penalize him. Posner, who now hopes to build a permitted unit on his property, says the fiasco crosses his mind every day. “The unit spotlighted how hard the job is. I successfully made a ton of sacrifices and changed my life around to be able to do a good job,” Posner says. “Everything from clipping my ear hair to responding to people who were obnoxious. The rental unit put a spotlight on me, and it was a lot to ask of me and my family.”
Posner apologized in a council meeting and explained himself. At the meeting, some supported Posner, or even praised him for providing an affordable place to live. Others suggested he was a hypocrite, helping to preside over the laws that regulate housing while skirting them himself.
Keeley says this is partly why public officials need to take care of issues that could do them harm. “You should assume in public life that there are no secrets … It is reasonable to expect that they will be exposed,” Keeley says. “It doesn’t matter if you are progressive, conservative or anything else. That’s life in the public eye.”
The City Council race is already getting crowded, with four seats available, one incumbent is Mayor Cynthia Mathews and nine other candidates. Jim P. Davis, Robert Singleton and Sandy Brown are the most recent candidates to throw their hats into the ring.
Posner, who hasn’t decided exactly what he’ll be doing next, hopes to give advice to the candidates he’s endorsing. Other than that, he’s looking to get back to his activist roots.
“I’m hoping someone will read this article and think ‘Wow, you know, Micah would be good at this,’” Posner says. “I’ve thought of everything, including buying a farm—which my wife said no to. So if someone has a project for me out there, call me up.”