Longtime Santa Cruz journalist Geoffrey Dunn talks with outgoing Mayor Ryan Coonerty and incoming Mayor Don Lane about a variety of political and economic issues facing Santa Cruz —both as a community and as a municipality—and their hopes and dreams for Surf City in the upcoming year.
Ryan Coonerty: “Long-Term Results”
The year 2011 will go down as one of the most devastating years in the history of California politics, with massive budget cuts forced upon cities and counties throughout the state. While the City of Santa Cruz has faired better than most, it has still faced severe budget cuts and the elimination of several programs and hundreds of city jobs.
At the helm of the city during this passage through rough waters has been 37-year-old Ryan Coonerty, the first homegrown mayor in Santa Cruz since Joe Ghio last served in 1980. The scion of a local business family (his sister Casey Coonerty Protti currently runs Bookshop Santa Cruz), Coonerty has followed in the political footsteps of his father, Neal Coonerty, who also served as mayor and currently represents the Third District on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.
A graduate of Santa Cruz High (he was a quarterback on the football team) and the University of Oregon, Coonerty went on to earn a masters degree in International Relations at the London School of Economics and then mirrored his political idol, Robert F. Kennedy, by graduating from the University of Virginia Law School. A stark, black-and-white photo of RFK currently adorns Coonerty’s office at Santa Cruz City Hall.
Rather than becoming an attorney in the Beltway, Coonerty decided to return home, piecing together a career as a lecturer at both UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College, a writer (he is the author of “Etched in Stone—America’s Enduring Words”), and an entrepreneur in the private sector (he is the cofounder of NextSpace).
It was his father, he says, who inspired him to get involved in the political arena. “I was in high school when the Loma Prieta Earthquake  hit and my dad was drafted to run for council the following year to help rebuild Downtown,” Coonerty asserts. “When I saw how much elected officials can shape their community, politics became something I took an interest in.”
In recent years, Coonerty married Santa Cruz native Emily Bernard and, in October, became a new father to daughter Daisy Joan.
GEOFFREY DUNN: My 12-year-old son wants to know what it’s like being mayor of your hometown. He said you make being mayor look “easy.”
RYAN COONERTY: Being mayor is amazing. In our system, the mayor doesn’t have any more power than councilmembers, but you get a lot more opportunities to go out and see different parts of the community. This year I spoke to almost a dozen high school classes about the city and it was energizing to hear how engaged the next generation is and how ready they are to solve some of the big problems facing our world.
DUNN: “Big” may well be something of an understatement. I just read Michael Lewis’ article in Vanity Fair [November 2011] on the state of California’s municipal economies. It presents a grim picture. Is there hope beyond the proximate darkness?
COONERTY: Until Sacramento and Washington begin to govern and make the really difficult decisions, I don’t think we will be out of the darkness any time soon. Locally though, I think there is a lot to be hopeful about: we have a healthy reserve and one of the highest bond ratings in the state. Santa Cruz has a diversified economy that is well-positioned for the growing creative economy because of the incredibly talented people who live here. UCSC is emerging as one of the most innovative research institutions in the world and there are a lot of opportunities around that. Lastly, we are a city that has a sense of community and common purpose that gives us an ability to solve problems in a way that a lot of places unfortunately cannot right now.
DUNN: In January, the California Supreme Court will be ruling on the constitutionality of the legislature eliminating redevelopment agencies (RDAs) statewide and essentially raiding their coffers to balance the state budget. Let’s assume for the moment that the court upholds the legislature’s hit on RDA funding. What does that do to the city’s ability to generate economic development in the near and not-too-distant future?
COONERTY: The state made a huge mistake getting rid of redevelopment agencies. We have other states setting up offices in California to lure our companies away. The state government has no agency or plan to attract and retain jobs, so it was left to cities and counties. We will still work hard to partner with companies to stay and move here—it is a great place to live and do business, which is a huge competitive advantage—but it will be much more difficult.
DUNN: I know you were a strong supporter of the La Bahia Hotel project that was voted down by the Coastal Commission. What happened? What can be learned from the process?
COONERTY: That was brutal. La Bahia was one of the most important projects that the city has undertaken in a generation. It would have created good jobs, a tax base, a year-round economy and transformed the beach area. I can’t remember any project that had broader community support over such a sustained time. The Coastal Commission rejected it for reasons that are still unclear to me. Honestly, I don’t know what we could have done differently that would have made it politically palatable to the Coastal Commission while still economically feasible to build.
DUNN: I suppose that in spite of the defeats, there are also plenty of triumphs. Being mayor allows you to participate in a host of ceremonial activities that you seem to really enjoy. What have been some of the highlights throughout the year?
COONERTY: The ceremonial side is so much fun. My first proclamation was to one of Santa Cruz’s most talented singers, your daughter, Tess Dunn, so hopefully she remembers me when she hits the big time.
DUNN: You were her favorite mayor, I am sure, until you just outed me as her father.
DUNN: I told her my favorite mayor was Fred Swanton [Santa Cruz mayor from 1927 to 1932].
COONERTY: I’m sure you are old enough to remember him.
DUNN: Ouch … don’t make me call your father-in-law. [Laughter]
COONERTY: Obviously James Durbin Day was great. A recent highlight was the city’s first Veterans Day ceremony for city employees who served our country. It was a long overdue thank you to them and an honor to participate in it.
DUNN: OK, back to the more problematic side of being mayor. My sources on the street tell me that you have grumbled at times about Santa Cruz being “ungovernable.” That’s the term that got thrown around. Is there any truth to that?
COONERTY: I’ve thought about launching a “Keep Santa Cruz Governable” campaign.
DUNN: I’m not sure it makes for a great bumper sticker…
COONERTY: And it’s not just the city, but the state and country that are becoming “ungovernable.”
DUNN: I think you are probably right, but how so?
COONERTY: A couple of ways, and let me explain a little here because this will get thrown back at me.
DUNN: Have at it.
COONERTY: The first challenge is that there tends to be skepticism of experts in this community. For example, we will have water engineers present actual figures for our annual demand and supply of water. Then people with no background in the subject will ignore or reject those findings when they wouldn’t do the same thing in other parts of their life—with mechanics, doctors or other professionals. We can agree to look at facts and come to different conclusions, but we have to agree on the facts or we will just talk right past each other.
DUNN: Bill Clinton recently called it a “fact-free moment” in American politics. I suppose it transcends ideology.
COONERTY: On top of that we have professional disrupters who come to our council meetings and make it so unpleasant that people choose not to participate. I’ve heard from a number of citizens that they wanted to come to a council meeting to weigh in on an issue, but chose not to because of fear of being ridiculed or protested later. It threatens our democracy when that happens.
DUNN: Sometimes I watch my mother—who has lived here all her life—watch council meetings on television and she grumbles and shakes her head.
COONERTY: She’s not the only one. Finally, having a part-time mayor who rotates every year is a challenge because you have different visions every year. It also means that mayors tend to focus on short-term projects rather than long-term efforts, which makes it difficult to build partnerships with other municipalities, companies and institutions because the leadership is constantly changing.
DUNN: Interesting. Do you then support a so-called “strong mayor system” or an elected mayor? How long would you like to see a mayor serve?
COONERTY: Definitely not a strong mayor system. Our city manager system has served us well. A directly elected mayor like Monterey may be a good option or even having mayors serve two years should be considered.
DUNN: If you were king, as opposed to mayor, what’s the first thing you’d change about the local political process?
COONERTY: Ha! There have been moments during particularly long council meetings when I have fantasized about that ... I guess I would try as king to make a rule that anyone—elected official, city staff or citizen—who got up and proclaimed that there is an easy solution to our complex problems—water, traffic, jobs, budget—in this incredibly complicated and ever-changing world we live in, would be forced to sit through a year of meetings and seminars on the topic until they found a solution or admitted the problem is not an easy one to solve. Our country is way beyond easy solutions, and it’s time that we recognize that and start working collaboratively to solve them.
DUNN: As the father of a young child, what are your hopes for the future of Santa Cruz as they relate to raising a family here?
COONERTY: As you know, this was a wonderful place to grow up—you at the turn of the century …
DUNN: [Laughter] That would be the 18th century…
CCOONERTY: … and me in the 1980s and ‘90s—because there were a lot of young families and people of all backgrounds—I went to school with children of UCSC professors, small business people, blue collar workers and every other profession or non-profession you can think of. Santa Cruz is now a very expensive place to live, and we’ve seen fewer families staying here and those that do are not as economically diverse. Those of us on the council with young families are very focused on providing the economic opportunity and security that our community needs to be family friendly.
DUNN: Agreed. What’s your proudest accomplishment?
COONERTY: There are a lot of policies that I’m proud of—investing reserve funds in local financial institutions, balancing the budget while protecting city services, using new techniques to reduce crime, the Clean Oceans Initiative, recruiting and retaining hundreds of jobs—but I think the thing that I am most proud of is helping to bring new people into government. People like Hilary Bryant, David Terrazas, and our appointees to city commissions are incredibly talented, committed people who will make this community a better place to live.
DUNN: You know, I don’t know what percentage of the citizenry is aware of these type of activities. I’m never sure how many people pay attention to the details of what’s going on at City Hall.
COONERTY: This might have been one of the most transformational years in the history of the city. We hired a new city manager, police chief, and consolidated two departments. We renegotiated our labor contracts with all seven of our unions to obtain $4 million in savings and a reformed pension plan that will move us toward fiscal stability in the long run. We launched major initiatives in the area of technology, strategic planning, and climate action. We reformed our funding of social services for more accountability and performance. We dealt with a tsunami, the state taking away our Redevelopment Agency, and [negative] Coastal Commission decisions about La Bahia and Arana Gulch.
DUNN: You’re right. That’s a helluva lot to deal with.
COONERTY: And that’s not all. We are finalizing our agreement with UCSC on mitigating the impacts of their growth. We are developing an emergency water supply. We acquired the rail line and approved several new hotels and buildings. We have reduced crime using new models of policing, passed a rental inspection program, and are partnering with UCSC’s Fire Department to reduce costs and improve service. We reached out to dozens of businesses to retain and create jobs. And, of course, we welcomed James Durbin, the Giants World Series Trophy, and the Mavericks movie crew. I’m really proud of how this community has taken on so many issues and focused on long-term results.
Don Lane: Act II
It was the great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald who opined that “there are no second acts in American lives.” Precisely 20 years after he first took over the reigns of the city, in 1991, incoming Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane has proved Fitzgerald wrong. He will assume the mayorship next Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the council’s 7 p.m. meeting.
Like his immediate predecessor Ryan Coonerty, Lane was reared in an activist family. Both of his parents, Ann Reiss Lane and Bert Lane, were (and remain) engaged in the Los Angeles community in which they were both raised; his paternal great-grandfather, Simon Levi, an immigrant from Bohemia, served on the San Diego City Council in the early 1900s.
A graduate of Beverly Hills High School (he was an out-of-district transfer), Lane, now 55, first arrived in Santa Cruz in the early 1970s as a student in politics at UCSC. The political world quickly grabbed hold of him. He did an internship in Washington, D.C., at the office of Congressmember Tom Rees, and then served as Santa Cruz County Coordinator for Leon Panetta’s first run for Congress, in 1976.
In 1979, Lane opened what was to become a Santa Cruz institution, the Saturn Café, originally located at the corner of Mission and Laurent streets, while continuing to engage in local politics. After selling the café in 1994, he served as Founding Executive Director of Youth Opportunities, a nonprofit job-training program for high-risk youth that operated the Double Rainbow Café on Pacific Avenue.
If there’s a single area of local politics that has garnered Lane’s focus, however, it has been that of “homelessness,” cofounding a pair of organizations dealing with the issue locally. He presently serves as Foundation Manager for the Appleton Foundation, a small charitable organization based in Santa Cruz.
During his years away from the council, Lane married Mary Howe (an electronics technician at UCSC), raised a daughter, Tida Lane-Howe, (an artist and student at Cabrillo), and, through his wife’s older daughter Sojii, is now a grandfather.
An avid bicyclist, Lane still plays basketball weekly with “a bunch of old guys” and maintains a collection of 500 eggs—stone, ceramic and wooden, along with painted natural eggs. More than three decades after he founded the Saturn, he says that he is still “very into ice cream.”
GEOFFREY DUNN: Welcome back to the helm. It’s feeling a little bit like “déjà vu all over again,” to borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra. How have Santa Cruz politics changed over the past 20 years since you last were mayor?
DON LANE: I think there’s a bit more balance and moderation. Clearly there is a new generation of leadership that is making a real difference—even though a few of us old timers are still around on the city council. The business community is more influential in the local political arena than it was 20 years ago and it is taking a more enlightened approach. The local daily paper has changed—it’s more balanced, less inflammatory and its political stance is more in line with the rest of the community. The community’s attitude toward UCSC has gotten more positive and the UCSC administration’s attitude in relation to local concerns has improved. The old-line progressive community is less organized and mobilized on local issues.
DUNN: That’s a pretty significant shift in the local political zeitgeist. How do you think you’ve changed?
LANE: My jump shot has actually improved, but my back hurts a lot more after the game.
DUNN: [Laughter] That’s impressive! My jumper has disappeared, but I’m with you on the back pain …
LANE: More seriously, I’ve been through some significant changes in my personal life—I married a terrifically supportive woman. I also spent a good period away from local politics so I had time to reflect on and recover from a bumpy period on the city council in the post earthquake period.
Some of the things I learned in that reflection are: to take my time before I react to things; to avoid putting a lot of attention to the negativity that comes my way as a city councilmember; to carve out enough time in my life to be an effective city councilmember rather than trying to squeeze it in. Perhaps most important, I’ve put a lot of effort into becoming a better listener and being more patient. I still hold fairly strong political beliefs, but I’m doing a better job of taking very seriously the ideas of those who differ with me.
DUNN: My sense is that Santa Cruz politics is less contentious than it was back during your previous tenure on the council. Am I right? Or is it just a matter of perspective from someone who’s been through the battles?
LANE: I think it’s somewhat less contentious. For better or for worse, ideological differences are not as much at the forefront of local political debate. Phenomenon such as Think Local First and Transition Santa Cruz have helped bridge some of the divide—there are more people consciously seeking common ground with those they traditionally disagreed with. On the other hand, I don’t think we should overstate the change; there have been some pretty hot issues in the last few years and there are more to come.
DUNN: You recently sent me a 10,000-word position paper on a variety of issues that, in the most general sense, fall under the rubric of “homelessness.” And you begin it with a discussion of community misperceptions, or stereotypes, around homelessness. Can you distill those misperceptions into a few hundred words?
LANE: There are many misconceptions in the community about both homelessness and the issues that swirl around homelessness. First, many people make assumptions about homeless people that are based on fear and urban mythology and ignorance. I’ve tried to articulate it this way when I speak to a large group: I project a photo on the wall of a guy who matches the stereotype of a scruffy, zoned-out street person. I invite everyone to come up with the story that comes to mind for them about this person. Some come up with very sympathetic stories and others come up with stories that place the responsibility for his homelessness on his individual errors in behavior and judgment.
LANE: Then I point out that the story each person in the room imagined is irrelevant—because each person in the room simply made up the story. No one in the room has the facts—they simply allow their assumptions to take over. This is a huge problem when we try to deal with homelessness.
DUNN: What are a couple of others?
LANE: First, the claim that Santa Cruz has plentiful shelter for those who need it and that everyone out on the street is choosing to be on the street. In fact, there is only shelter for somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of our local homeless population.
Another claim is that most of the homeless people in Santa Cruz wandered here from somewhere else. The data actually shows that 70 percent of homeless people in this county lived here before they became homeless.
Another oft-stated assumption is that lots of homeless people come to Santa Cruz because of our homeless programs. As far as I can tell, this is something people just say without any data to prove it. Since our services here are similar to many other cities, it is hard to see why this claim would be made—but Santa Cruzans love to believe we are unique even when the facts suggest otherwise.
DUNN: There are roughly 3,000 homeless people living in greater Santa Cruz. It’s a startling number of people. Do you really think Santa Cruz “encourages” homeless people to come here or is that another misperception? In your position paper you address the “Los Gatos question”—why can’t Santa Cruz be more like Los Gatos with fewer public vestiges of homelessness? In two hundred words or less…
LANE: Here are some of the ways we are different from Los Gatos that contribute to a higher number of homeless people here: We are on a well-established coastal travel circuit—a destination for people on the road because of all the history and character and music and youth culture and drugs. We have a large university, which contributes to a tolerant culture and more panhandling. We have all kinds of public open space very close to the center of town—generally within walking distance. There is a very high tolerance for marijuana use in Santa Cruz and a plentiful supply. We are a major tourist destination—for not only well-off people but for the full spectrum of people in California. And, like it or not, people of all stripes come here to hang out and try to enjoy themselves.
Though Santa Cruz is an expensive place to live, there is still a high level of income diversity. There are many lower income people living here in apartments and crowded houses. These are the people most likely to become homeless when financial or health troubles hit.
Finally, Santa Cruz is the County Seat, with the headquarters of the jail and court system right in the middle of town. Unless we are able to change almost all of these things, it’s unlikely we would be like Los Gatos. And I doubt that most Santa Cruzans would want all these things to change.
DUNN: Let me be the first to say that I don’t want to live in Los Gatos. How much priority will you give to homeless issues as mayor?
LANE: It will continue to be a high priority for me. Almost everyone thinks it an important problem that the community should take on. The problem is we have so many different opinions about what should be done. So my most immediate priority related to homelessness is to help more people to get constructively engaged in dealing with it. Until we have a majority of the community pulling in the same direction, we are unlikely to make significant progress.
DUNN: Not entirely unrelated, I read a report online somewhere about an interaction you had with some of the spokespeople for “Occupy Santa Cruz.” How do you find yourself positioning politically vis a vis the movement?
LANE: This is a tremendous challenge because I very much support some of the political issues behind the “occupy” movement but I also don’t want San Lorenzo Park to be damaged or be a place where unsanitary conditions prevail. I have been trying to help the city reach an accommodation with the people in Occupy Santa Cruz’s tent encampment but it will be challenging because the city is a large institution with a lot of rules and structure while Occupy is organized so differently. It is difficult to negotiate with a group of a couple of hundred people who have no designated leaders.
DUNN: Is it fair to say that you were “upset” by the way your colleagues on the council handled cuts in social service funding this past fiscal year?
LANE: I was somewhat “upset” by the process, but the main feeling I had was disappointment. My sense was that both the clients of social service programs and the organizations themselves had taken so many hits over the last few years that I believed they did not deserve to be cut again.
DUNN: I got the sense that several people in city government, including Ryan, viewed the failure of La Bahia as a watershed moment in city politics. How did you view the La Bahia outcome?
LANE: I tend to see it as a notable setback but not a watershed moment. I think some may have put too much weight on La Bahia because there is so much else going on to improve our tourism economy these days. We have the upgraded Dream Inn which is really successful and improved in quality. We have an approved Marriot that will be built as soon as bank lending loosens up. We have the old Holiday Inn about to come back on line with significant upgrades. The Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center is going to be open in 2012 and will provide a major benefit to our waterfront. We have the new downtown/beach trolley in place. We are seeing nice upgrades completed or underway with some existing hotels and with restaurants on the wharf. I hope we can move forward with something at the La Bahia site, but even if we don’t we are making good progress.
DUNN: A year from now, if I were to interview you, what would be the one thing you’d like to see accomplished during your tenure?
LANE: That we are significantly closer to a situation where the city has enough funding available that we can address some issues that we have postponed for many years. This hinges on improving our local economy, increasing revenue, reshaping local government for greater efficiency and making sure that our current city expenditures are in alignment with the priorities of the community.
DUNN: What are some of your other goals for your mayorship?
LANE: I hope we can make strides to maintain and encourage diversity in this community. At the forefront of this will be efforts around affordable housing. Santa Cruz is an expensive place to live and we could easily become a town that has few places for lower-income families to live. I hope we will finally adopt a new General Plan this coming year and I hope the plan will set the stage for us to be successful in terms of creating additional affordable housing.
I hope city government will continue to engage the community in a constructive way on the most important issues we are wrestling with. We can always do more to involve people in both the discussion of issues and in making it possible for them to be part of improving our situation.
Lastly, I’m also working on something for April 1, 2012, called Proclamation Day. We have a lot of serious issues to deal with each year, but I’m hoping we’ll have some fun on April Fool’s Day. Stay tuned for details but here’s a hint: the third floor balcony on the Rittenhouse Building is crying out for additional use. n
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