When Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty announced in April that he would not run when his 3rd District seat came up for reelection in 2022, he explained that, among other things, he was looking forward to spending time with his family. So his decision to apply for the Santa Cruz City Manager position, which opened this year when former manager Martín Bernal announced his retirement in February, came as a surprise—even to them.
“My wife had the same question,” says Coonerty, 47, when asked what prompted his decision. He says it came after he was asked to apply for the position by several of his supporters in the county.
“This wasn’t on my radar at all,” he says. “I was looking forward to stepping away, but this is a critical moment in the city.”
Coonerty has nearly 20 years of experience in local government. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2014, a tenure that followed eight years as a Santa Cruz City Councilmember—including two terms as mayor, in 2008 and 2011.
News of Coonerty’s application was leaked to GT through a confidential source.
Santa Cruz Human Resources Director Lisa Murphy says that “multiple” people have applied for the position in the nationwide search, but declined to elaborate. Candidate searches are typically guided by strict confidentiality rules.
Murphy says that the city held its first round of interviews in July, and plans on another round later this month.
A decision is possible in November, she says.
Murphy adds that competition is high among cities nationwide for qualified candidates after the past year saw a record number of city managers retire. The Covid-19 pandemic and corresponding budget crises are a big factor, she says.
“I’ve never seen this many retirements of city managers,” says Murphy.
Coonerty acknowledges that the position will be a tough one, with the city’s growing homeless population, the ongoing drought, several infrastructure projects, the housing crisis and UCSC looking to increase enrollment from 19,000 to 28,000 by 2040.
On top of all of that, the city will also have to find a new police chief after Andy Mills announced Tuesday that he was resigning at the end of the month to accept the position of Chief of Police for the City of Palm Springs. He was appointed Chief of the Santa Cruz Police Department in July 2017.
“There is a lot going on, and you have a council that wants to address it,” he says. “And it’s critical who they pick to help guide the city towards their vision.”
Before venturing into politics, Coonerty worked on two national commissions that worked to address election reform and civil liberties. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon, a master’s from the London School of Economics and a law degree from the University of Virginia. He is currently a legal studies lecturer at UCSC, and is a University of California 2020-21 Fellow for the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.
“I’m happy to serve if the council thinks it’s the right way to go,” he says. “I love Santa Cruz and I’m always happy to serve my hometown if I can.”
The beginning of 2023 will mark the first time in 16 years that a Coonerty won’t be on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors; his father Neal held the same seat from 2007 to 2014. It will also mark the first time in 18 years that there won’t be a Coonerty holding a major local elected office in the county. (Coonerty’s aunt Sheila remains a trustee on the Santa Cruz City Schools Board.)
In addition to his work navigating the compounding crises of the past year, Coonerty told GT in April that he’s proud of what he’s done to help expand drug treatment options, improve the county’s response to homelessness and expand support for young mothers and working-class families. Coonerty also spearheaded the creation of the Nurse Family Partnership and the Thrive By Three Fund—both of them aimed at improving opportunities for babies and young children.