As I speak with Santa Cruz City Council candidates, the third-most-recurrent theme after affordable housing (everyone’s top issue) and post-pandemic economic recovery is the power imbalance in our city-manager form of government between career staff of the city bureaucracy and elected but transient representatives of the public serving their four-year terms on the council (with the chance of doubling down for four more before being termed out, then being able to run again after a two-year break from office). City staff has the historical and professional knowledge to guide the council toward policy outcomes it considers necessary or beneficial for the city. Council, in theory the executive branch, may also formulate policy and direct staff to execute it. Whether or not such initiatives are ever implemented is a measure of the system’s capacity to accommodate or ignore an agenda not of its own making.
This is less a matter of any Trumpian “deep state” conspiracy to thwart the people’s will than of structural inertia, budget constraints and lack of imagination. It is always a matter of funding and where it comes from and who pays. Council members with several years’ experience tend to have a subtler understanding of this reality than freshly elected idealists who arrive with an exaggerated notion of what they can do to advance the agenda they ran on. Recycled veterans of the council like Cynthia Mathews who have served multiple terms over the course of decades have both a structural understanding of the workings of City Hall and personal relations with staff that give her leverage and credibility—which explains, in part, Mathews’ disproportionate power and influence with both staff and council colleagues.
The fact that Mathews is termed out and leaving the council in the new year does nothing to diminish her clout in city politics. She is hyperconnected, both inside and outside government (with city professionals, politicians, local institutions and organizations, and the general public) and thanks to her strong and well-developed views as to what is best for Santa Cruz, an agenda she has spent decades developing, it’s a good bet that she will continue to throw her weight around in service of her vision. How healthy this is for the city is a question worth asking, but few local Democrats will ask it for fear of retribution.
So, newly elected councilwomen (all the candidates this year are women), even four-year veterans Martine Watkins and Sandy Brown if they win another term, must navigate a narrow strait between entrenched staff with their ability to do pretty much whatever they want and the political machinery of Mathews and her mainstream development-friendly socially liberal Democratic bloc. Continuing councilwomen Donna Meyers (soon to be mayor) and Renée Golder (elected this year to fill out recalled councilman Drew Glover’s four-year term) are politically aligned behind Mathews like ducklings and are a safe bet to carry on her agenda. The more-experienced Martine Watkins has also been carried along in Mathews’ slipstream, and if the liberal middle has a “slate” in this election it is Watkins, professional grant-writer Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson and Sonja Brunner of the Downtown Association. Were these three to be elected, it would give this center-liberal band five out of seven council seats.
Further left on the ideological continuum are progressive candidates Kayla Kumar, Kelsey Hill and incumbent Sandy Brown. If all three of them were elected, depending on who wins the fourth seat, then that “slate” would have at least some leverage to negotiate for their priorities, which this time around may not differ that much from the mainstreamers’ as the city faces an economic and fiscal crisis that significantly narrows policy options.
As someone opposed in principle to slates and blocs, and in favor of independent thinking and consensus, I will make my choices based on what combination of individuals promises the best chance of transpartisan cooperation toward common goals. Stay tuned for my conclusions in the next few weeks.
Stephen Kessler’s column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.