City Councilmember Cynthia Chase knows how to go out with a bang.
If Chase’s self-proclaimed “year of housing” were a long and grinding sports season, her “listening tour”—stretching from July through November—was the grueling playoff run. Conducted during her one-year term as mayor, the tour culminated in about 100 affordable housing-related recommendations at a Dec. 5 meeting, after a hellish flu had gotten the best of her. The way she battled through that night was an MVP-like performance, the Michael Jordan flu game of city government. By the end, her voice had gone from hoarse to practically nonexistent. Chase never considered skipping it, but she was out sick for the following week.
“People would ask, ‘Is everything OK … ?’ Like, ‘No! Everything’s not OK! My body can’t do all of this,’” remembers Chase, who also works full-time as the inmate programs manager at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. “Once I commit to something, I’m gonna follow it through, and I’m gonna do it to the best of my ability.”
Chase says she had never been as sick as she was last year during her term as mayor. Looking back now, she’s grateful it’s behind her.
She loved hearing the perspectives of thousands of community members, and then packaging them into cogent policy solutions, she says. Nonetheless, Chase broke the news to GT that she won’t be running for re-election this November.
Chase’s decision not to run again, and her reasons for making it, open up questions about the future of Santa Cruz elections, the entire set-up of the city’s government, the future of Santa Cruz housing policy and even the tenor of local politics.
Generally, when anyone hears a politician talking about seeking more input or forming a subcommittee, it sounds like little more than a polite way to avoid making any tough decisions. But what Chase showed Santa Cruz over the past few years is that an intensive study process really can be a method of building consensus down a path of action that will have a wide swath of community buy-in. Two years ago, Chase served on a council committee on homelessness that came up with 21 short- and long-term recommendations, some of which are now being implemented.
Her housing suggestions spawned a subcommittee of their own—a committee that Chase also served on—leading to a community discussion last month, and ultimately the adoption a few weeks ago of the housing blueprint subcommittee’s recommendations.
“What we had heard over and over and over [from the public] was, ‘You’re not asking, you’re not listening to us,’” says Chase, who says she would be open to one day running again for elected office, possibly the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. “It felt like we really needed to do that, and we really needed to vet our recommendations with them because what I was trying to say was, ‘OK we heard from you, we looked at those things, we came back with some preliminary recommendations. Before we move forward with these, we want to check them out with you.’”
TAKE MY SEAT
Chase isn’t the first city councilmember to bow out in recent years after serving only one term, due partly to the heavy workload of a tough gig that’s supposed to be only part-time.
She’s actually the third councilmember to do so in the last four years—all of them women juggling a number of other responsibilities.
Like Chase, then-Councilmember Hilary Bryant left office in 2014, while enormously popular, after a challenging year as mayor. Two years later, Pamela Comstock announced she wouldn’t be running for re-election, either. (Micah Posner also decided not to run again that same year, although he cited disillusionment with city politics, at the time, rather than unreasonably high time expectations.)
“The decision was made out of necessity. I couldn’t continue to fulfill my commitments to my family, my community and my employer,” Comstock says. “Something had to give.”
When Comstock would get home at night, she says that if she wanted to help her son with homework, make dinner and put him to bed at 9 p.m., she knew she would have 100 emails waiting for her. Most of the senders would be expecting thoughtful replies, so she would be up until 1 or 2 a.m., knowing that she would be up again at 6:45 a.m. Whenever she didn’t reply, she felt like a failure.
Comstock adds, however, that she doesn’t necessarily see a problem with this trend of respected councilmembers serving only one term. She says it brings more voices to city government.
Although Santa Cruz city councilmembers got a pay increase two years ago, they still make about $20,500, with the rotating mayorship—a one-year term—paying roughly twice that. If a city councilmember ends up working 40 hours a week, which Chase says isn’t uncommon, that comes out to less than minimum wage. Chase says the workload varies based on how much a councilmember takes on, but she thinks it’s going to become rarer for people working their own full-time jobs to serve on the council.
“Who’s going to represent the community?” says Chase. “I think that is going to be more common, where people aren’t able to balance this with their lives, unless they’re retired or independently wealthy. You can have a couple people on your council, but you certainly don’t want the majority of your council being that.”
For a councilmember, just staying on top of emails and scheduling is a job in itself, Chase says. Then there is meeting with constituents and going to events, and, of course, the meetings—ones for the City Council (which can go on for more than 10 hours), separate commissions (Chase has served on both the RTC and the METRO boards), and various subcommittees. Many of those meetings come with 300 or 400 pages of dense reading material.
It’s worth noting that Santa Cruz city councilmembers do, however, get paid more than other councilmembers in the county.
Although the county supervisors make more than $120,000 each, councilmembers from Scotts Valley, Capitola and Watsonville all make less than $7,000 a year.
Capitola Mayor Mike Termini, who’ll be sad to see Chase go, says that a Capitola city councilmember typically works about 20 hours a week and that the mayor works an additional 15 hours or so.
Even though Capitola’s councilmembers make less than a third of what representatives in Santa Cruz make, Termini doesn’t envy his North County counterparts, who serve in a city that has six times the population and doubles as the county seat. Although he loves his gig, he agrees with Chase that this may be the right time for a discussion on what county residents expect of their local electeds.
“If you ask the average person,” he says, “they really think we’re making the big bucks.”
If the thankless task of serving on the council is the dumpster fire it’s often made out to be, then it begs the question: Why would so many candidates—nine so far, in the current race—want it? Or is there something else about the allure that somehow pulls in candidates like moths drawn to the flame?
Robert Singleton, 27, who’s strongly considering a run for the council, says that, plain and simple, this isn’t a decision that anyone makes out of self-interest.
“It’s public service,” says Singleton, who ran two years ago and also co-founded Civinomics, a discussion forum and polling group. “It’s not a good move for your career, because it’s not going to pay anything close to what you would make in in the private sector. It certainly doesn’t pay in the way that is commensurate with your experience or the time you put in. But it’s a way to have an impact on your community.”
The other eight candidates come from a variety of different backgrounds:
- Richelle Noroyan, 49, is running for her second consecutive term on the Santa Cruz City Council, and also works part-time in community relations at UCSC. A moderate on the council, she pushed for more rigorous Cowell Beach cleanups and served on the Homelessness Coordinating Committee, alongside Chase and Comstock. She also proposed two local gun laws that the council passed unanimously.
- Drew Glover, 32, ran for City Council two years ago, finishing the race for four seats in fifth place, after he learned his mother was dying and chose to spend some of the final weeks of his campaign by her side. He believes that if he goes through the city budget, he’ll find ways to better prioritize community programs.
- Donna Meyers, 53, has her own environmental company, Conservation Collaborative, that works on a variety of watershed and coastal habitat projects. She chairs both the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission and the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, which has eliminated its deficit, expanded its budget and grown its staff in recent years.
- Cynthia Hawthorne, 67, is a psychotherapist who helped organize the last two women’s marches in downtown Santa Cruz. The mother of two and former school board trustee says her experience as a great listener can bring civility and respectful dialogue back to local politics.
- Michael R. Mahan, 29, is a Santa Cruz County assistant district attorney, who works on domestic violence cases. He touts his conflict resolution background and wants to help the police to prioritize cracking down on serious crimes, as opposed to petty offenses.
- Paige Concannon, 56, is a former cook for Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall, who’s been volunteering at the St. Francis Soup Kitchen for 10 years. Concannon—who notes that her neighbors already call her “Mayor of Seabright”—says her neighborhood’s being overrun by theft and littered needles.
- Dave Lane, 55, is a retired UCSC auditor who believes he can introduce a new level of austerity to the city budget. He wants to cut back the police budget and reverse course on any goals for low-income high-density housing.
- Justin Cummings, 35, is a UCSC climate change researcher who teaches kids about environmental stewardship at Long Marine Lab. He felt motivated to run after seeing so many of his friends either get priced out or end up among the working homeless population.
Former Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter J.M. Brown, who had considered running, has decided he won’t—saying he doesn’t want to interfere with his new job as an analyst for County Supervisor Bruce McPherson.
Former Councilmember Comstock is surprised to hear that so many candidates have already jumped in, and says that it’s important for them to be aware of what they’re getting into. But she also explains that the magnitude of the undertaking is only part of the equation.
“Fear of time commitment does not dissuade people from serving, because it is such an honor,” Comstock says.
Soon, Chase will be taking on a new kind of leadership role.
Chase says she and her husband Howard Heevner have started taking classes to become foster parents, and she hopes to start taking in kids by next year. Chase says they’re most interested in the hard-to-place kids—sibling groups, older kids and LGBT youth.
“It is one of those things where we vacillate between ‘Oh, this is so amazing, we’re going to have these lovely little creatures in our lives,’ and then we’re also ‘Oh God, are we ready for this?’ and all of the potential challenges that come with kids in that circumstance,” she says.
Four years ago, Chase was thinking about running for Santa Cruz City Council, and found herself sitting in the same place she’s been for the past few weeks—adding up all of the hours of work and trying to figure out how much she could realistically accomplish each week. Chase got a lot of encouragement from women’s advocacy groups to jump in, but she was already the director of Gemma, a Watsonville-based nonprofit that helps convicts transition back into society. When the program got moved under the umbrella of Encompass Community Services, it freed up enough time for her to jump into the council race.
A couple of years later, when a position at the sheriff’s office opened up, her responsibilities intensified again, forcing her to re-do the whole calculus four years later. She also asked herself if she was letting down young girls by not entering the race.
“And then I really thought about it, and I think that part of being a good leader—in general, but particularly as a woman—is knowing that there’s other ways to serve, and that I did serve for four years to the best of my abilities. And that part of being a good leader is knowing when to step out,” says Chase.
Over the past couple years, she says that “personality conflicts and theatrics” have at times gotten in the way of good governance and community representation, although she declines to identify any councilmembers specifically.
Going forward, possible changes have appeared on the horizon that could alter the shape of future elections, possibly even city governance itself.
Mayor David Terrazas floated the idea of a ballot measure to test the waters of public opinion on the idea of newly established city council districts, a publicly elected mayor, and letting a mayor serve a two-year term. Terrazas isn’t the first Santa Cruz mayor to suggest that a one-year term is too brief to implement any sense of vision and see it through. (As Ryan Coonerty finished up his second term as mayor in 2011, he identified the same problem, and offered pretty much the same solution.)
The City Council has declined to pursue a ballot measure for now, instead voting to create a committee to look at developing a possible new setup for the election.
Chase says the topic of a directly elected mayor is an interesting one that’s worthy of a discussion. If the city increased the pay of the mayor and made the position full-time, that could, in theory, reduce the workload for his or her fellow councilmembers. But that would come at a financial cost, so Chase believes the city may want to look at reducing the number of city councilmembers to offset them.
The other idea that came up was to split up the city into separate City Council districts so that each region of the city gets its own elected representative. Some Midtown and Seabright residents, including Concannon, support the district approach, having long felt that they’ve been underrepresented on the council. The Watsonville City Council has held district elections for nearly 30 years, after a court ordered the change and ruled that at-large elections were disenfranchising the South County city’s Latino population.
Here in Santa Cruz, Comstock feels that switching to four council districts—along with a directly elected mayor—may reduce the workload for each representative, as they would have fewer constituents to answer to.
Implementing the change would involve at least a small handful of practical considerations.
For instance, would UCSC dominate its own district, or get split into two? And what are the ramifications if a skilled up-and-coming public servant lives in the same district as a popular incumbent? Or what if two well-liked councilmembers are already living in the same district?
These are the kinds of questions that the new committee will have the authority to sift through.
Perhaps the biggest question about the approach relates to what happens when a needed but unpopular project like a homeless shelter or affordable housing development comes through the city pipeline.
Chase worries that if the city opted to set up council districts, it would simply allow “Not in My Backyard”—or NIMBY—activists to stonewall the effort.
“I have seen other communities where districts end up being a way to push responsibility out of someone’s district and into somebody else’s, and then for something to not get done,” Chase says. “Two things that are really important to me are affordable housing and homelessness. Both of those issues are NIMBY issues, and I worry considerably about what would happen if we had districts and we had all district representatives saying ‘not here.’ Then where?’ Those are the conversations we need to have.”
Update 9/26/2018: We originally misreported the specifics of Cynthia Hawthorne’s occupation.