UPDATED BIO: From the Press Democrat: Journalist Keven McCallum
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey announced Tuesday he will not seek a second term on the City Council this fall, but hinted that he’s not yet finished with public service.
The former newspaper columnist, who was the face of the city during the devastating October wildfires and subsequent recovery efforts, gave few clues about what he might do next, saying he wanted to focus on his remaining time in office.
“It’s a strange job where you have to give five months’ notice,” Coursey said after the meeting. “I don’t like being a lame duck, and I don’t plan to act like one.”
Council colleagues said they had been wondering whether Coursey would run this fall for the newly formed District 4 seat, which represents much of central and north Santa Rosa, including the Fountaingrove neighborhood.
Vice Mayor Chris Rogers said Coursey took most of his colleagues by surprise with the announcement. Coursey has been working incredibly hard, and the workload and general demands of the position must have played a role in his decision, Rogers said.
“He was the face of the city and he was out there every day working for his constituents, and that’s got to be draining for him,” Rogers said.
Coursey, 63, is an avid skier and bicyclist. He said he is in good health.
Councilman John Sawyer said few mayors have faced such a confluence of challenges as Coursey did during his term, including the fires, the homeless crisis and the housing crisis.
“It’s been a really difficult couple of years in the mayor’s office,” Sawyer said.
Coursey made the announcement during the council meeting, making only a vague reference to “looking for other ways to contribute to the community when next year comes around.”
He steadfastly declined to share what some of those contributions might be. He would neither comment on nor rule out running for higher office.
“I have no idea what I’m going to be doing. I know what I’m not going to be doing,” he said.
He said the only reason he made the announcement now was so people who might be considering running for office could make an informed decision about whether they wanted to run.
The deadline for candidates to file paperwork to qualify for the ballot is Aug. 10. Sawyer and Councilman Tom Schwedhelm have already filed paperwork indicating their intention to run again, Sawyer for the new District 2 seat in Bennett Valley and Schwedhelm for the new District 6 seat in Coffey Park.
Coursey filed no such paperwork, a fact that had not gone unnoticed at City Hall. Coursey, a longtime columnist at The Press Democrat and brief spokesman for the SMART commuter rail system, was the top vote getter in 2014 when he ran and it’s widely believed that he’d be a shoo-in if he ran again.
At least one person has expressed an interest in the job. Victoria Fleming, a member of the city’s Community Advisory Board and Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, filed a form in January indicating an interest in running for council.
Fleming, a social worker, was in the audience during the Tuesday City Council meeting. Fleming confirmed she is running for the seat.
Chris Coursey has done an outstanding job for our city. He has skillfully helped us through a very difficult time in our city,” Fleming said.
Stepping aside to make room for other candidates who can bring some diversity to the council would be consistent with some of Coursey’s stated goals for the city’s electoral system.
Coursey lamented that after carving up the city into seven districts ostensibly to create more diversity, the council chose to protect three incumbents — all three middle-aged white men — by ensuring the districts where they live come up for election when their terms are up this year.
Coursey said at the time the move was to “protect the status quo.”
“To me, we were doing this to create change, and the reality is that if all three incumbents run for re-election, there will be no change at all in 2018,” he said at the time.
Coursey has traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for federal disaster assistance for the city, testified in front of committees in Sacramento recently in support of legislation to smooth the creation of denser housing downtown, and spoke on a panel recently at a League of California Cities conference in Monterey.
He’s also been very active locally, whether it’s working closely with county colleagues to create a district that can speed the construction of new housing, or attending an event to place a headstone at the grave of city founders Barney and Mary Hoen at the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery.
Sawyer said he doubted Coursey would be positioning himself for another job as an elected official.
“I’ve never even heard the words ‘higher office’ come out of his mouth,” Sawyer said.
But he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see him staying involved in the effort to build housing downtown, which the council took another step toward Tuesday night by instructing staff to pursue a housing-related joint powers authority with the county.
The JPA is expected to start up this fall with a budget of $500,000 and initially be staffed solely with existing city and county employees. Rogers also said he expected Coursey to remain heavily involved in his city somehow.
“Someone like Chris doesn’t just walk away and not be involved in the community in one way or another,” he said.
If Coursey or others feel like he is leaving some unfinished business behind, the reality is that he presided over many major accomplishments of which he can be proud, Rogers said. These include the reunification of Old Courthouse Square, the start of SMART rail service, the establishment of district elections, and the annexation of Roseland.
“Those are some pretty important things for our city that have been in process for a very long time and he got to see them through to completion,” Rogers said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.