In the first installment of In the Public Interest, a new weekly newsletter from Lookout politics and policy correspondent Christopher Neely, get an inside look at Manu Koenig’s self-nomination for the powerful California Coastal Commission, a seemingly unprecedented rejection by Koenig, Bruce McPherson and Zach Friend of fellow supervisor Justin Cummings’ nomination of Andy Schiffrin to the county planning commission and much more.
This story was originally featured in this week’s In the Public Interest newsletter from Christopher Neely. Be first the first to hear about politics and policy news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Christopher’s email newsletter here.
Christopher Neely here, Lookout’s politics and policy correspondent, introducing our newest weekly newsletter, “In the Public Interest,” authored by me and delivered directly to your inbox on Mondays.
This newsletter will stay within the broad boundaries of its title, offering news and stories from Santa Cruz County’s proverbial public square, the collective space where decision-makers, residents, students, advocates, thinkers, doers and movers converge to set our community on its path.
The content here will evolve to meet the news. Some weeks might include perspectives on recent events, Q&As with notable personalities, peeks behind the reporting curtain, or teasers for deep-dive stories ahead. The newsletter will always bring a few handpicked news stories, a quote of note or number to know, public agenda items in the week ahead and, my favorite, One Great Read, which will be the best article, story, blog post, poem, thesis, etc. I read the week prior.
The newsletter’s highest aim is to help the average person understand how their community works and develop informed, independent thought about the world most immediately around them. Please never hesitate to send feedback, ask questions, or, even better, point me in the direction of interesting stories.
Politics and Policy Correspondent
Centerfold: Tensions simmer among county supervisors
The election of Justin Cummings and Felipe Hernandez to the five-member Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in November promised to shake up at least the look of the formerly all-white-male dais. The elections brought important political implications too, with Cummings claiming the flag of the Democratic Socialists of America and Hernandez coming in with strong union support. A recent supervisors meeting showed some of the changing dynamics at play, and offered a few jolts.
The surprises began early at the Feb. 28 meeting. District 1 Supervisor Manu Koenig shocked his colleagues and the public by nominating himself as a candidate to the über-powerful California Coastal Commission. District 3 Supervisor Cummings also nominated himself, but Cummings’ plans had been well known — his nomination was listed on the public meeting agenda, published days in advance, which meant members of the public had the opportunity to offer their opinion prior to a board vote. The public, especially in a coastal community such as Santa Cruz County, has a deep interest in who sits on the Coastal Commission. The statewide body, with its ability to dictate development and activity along California’s coast, is considered the most powerful land-use authority in the U.S.
Koenig, who told me weeks earlier that serving on the Coastal Commission would not be the best use of his time, said he spontaneously nominated himself in the spirit of transparency. He essentially held up the broad sense of surprise as proof to the public that there was no backroom dealing. Yet the timing of Koenig’s nomination offered the public no prior notice, nor the ability to comment on it before the board’s vote, which, ironically, are some of the same issues presented by backroom dealing. Cummings, Koenig and Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brooks were all unanimously supported by the board as Coastal Commission nominees. California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon will make the final decision between nominees from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Mateo counties, likely within the next month.
The surprises did not end there.
Right after his Coastal Commission self-nomination, Koenig announced he would vote against Cummings’ nomination of Andy Schiffrin to the county’s planning commission. Koenig told me later he felt Schiffrin, who has been involved in local housing policy for decades and helped establish the county’s greenbelt, represented a stale ideology that wouldn’t help the county’s modern housing crisis.
Supervisors Bruce McPherson and Zach Friend echoed Koenig’s position, and the three no votes rejected Cummings’ appointment to the planning commission. Hernandez supported the appointment.
For a board majority to prevent Cummings, a democratically elected supervisor, from choosing his appointee to represent his district on a board or commission is an unprecedented move. The term “unprecedented” gets thrown around loosely these days, but current and past supervisors, as well as plugged-in local politicos, are adamant that this has never happened.
Schiffrin has worked as a county supervisor’s analyst since the 1970s, has served on countless boards, including planning commissions at the city and county levels. Schiffrin’s knowledge of housing laws and the thorny California Environmental Quality Act is said to be unmatched. However, the new board majority, citing Schiffrin’s longtime ubiquity and his politics, used its power to deny him.
Cummings said he was too shocked to say anything when it happened. Schiffrin called it “disturbing.”
Now, Cummings has had time to let it marinate. He plans to bring Schiffrin back as an appointment to the planning commission at the Tuesday meeting. However, the move is not totally uncompromising. Cummings told me he will nominate Schiffrin as an “interim” planning commissioner for six months, a proposal he worked out with board chair Friend. During that time, Cummings’ newest staffer, Trina Barton, would serve as an alternate, learn the ropes, and succeed Schiffrin as a full-time planning commissioner in the fall.
Of course, this is all subject to a board approval. I asked Cummings whether he would have any pointed comments for his colleagues ahead of this week’s vote.
“You’ll just have to tune in for that one,” he tells me.
How to read city council’s vote on downtown library project?
Could Santa Cruz City Council’s handling of the downtown library mixed-use project on Tuesday be a harbinger for the 1,600-unit South of Laurel project, adjoining a would-be new Santa Cruz Warriors arena, coming down the pipeline? Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley thinks so.
The city council will vote on a series of permits to allow the project, which includes 124 affordable housing units, a new downtown library, a parking garage and commercial space on the parking lot that today hosts the downtown farmers market, to break ground. The mixed-use development is only one of a series of new downtown projects, yet it motivated enough opposition to put it on the ballot in November 2022 as Measure O. The public defeated O by nearly 60%, a strong enough message for Keeley to believe the city is ready for growth.
“I see Tuesday’s debate and discussion as a proxy for how to read the community with regard to the South of Laurel project,” Keeley told me. “My read so far is that, 15 years ago, this would have been a different discussion. The community’s core values haven’t changed, but what has changed is a willingness to grow.”
Candidate watch: Jayme Ackemann, board member of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, has formally filed paperwork to run for the District 5 seat on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, occupied currently by three-term incumbent Bruce McPherson. District 5 has attracted a hum of early activity from potential candidates; however, most have held off formalizing their campaigns until McPherson announces his plans.
Housing watch: An eight-story, 276-unit, mixed-use housing development proposed for the riverside corner of Front Street and Soquel Avenue will head to the Santa Cruz City Council in the coming months after the project was recommended by the planning commission on March 2. It’s part of the larger Six Blocks plan to change the face of Front Street, something my colleague Wallace Baine dove into last fall.
Laird eyes reelection: State Sen. John Laird launched his reelection campaign. If successful, his second consecutive term in the state senate would be his state legislature swan song. Laird served three two-year terms in the state Assembly between 2002 and 2008 before seeking a senate seat in 2020. Look out for a Q&A between Laird and me later this week.
Say It Again
“One of the biggest problems I see in this community is the sameness of the architecture. When you lack structural heterogeneity, you lack the feeling of an organic community that came together naturally. Instead, you feel as if something has been imposed upon.”
— Justin Davilla, resident of Aptos, talking to the Santa Cruz Planning Commission about downtown Santa Cruz development during a March 2 meeting.
The Week Ahead
The case of Maya and Sebastian Laing, the siblings who were violently removed from their Westside home as part of a court-ordered reunification with their mother, sparked community outcry and confusion. Captured on video, the burly employees of the transportation company who carried the siblings to an unmarked vehicle were apparently acting within the law. Santa Cruz County supervisors will now try to change that, by voting Tuesday whether to pass anew policy that outlaws the physical force used by the transportation company.
County officials have formally acknowledged the need for more public restrooms, yet appear to be unable to install and maintain them because of, among other things, “staffing constraints due to the workforce shortage.” So county staff will ask Supervisor Chair Zach Friend on Tuesday to write a letter to the county’s chambers of commercerequesting private businesses voluntarily open their restrooms to the public.
Weekly News Diet
Local: If you know little about bookstore/wine bar/restaurant Bad Animal in Santa Cruz, just take this line from Wallace Baine’s wonderful little profile on the high-minded shop: “We are trying to take this seriously that we’re in this tradition of [famed Paris bookshop] Shakespeare and Company, and City Lights.”
Golden State: There is some comfort in knowing that the state government is doing exactly what it said it would do. On Thursday, Attorney General Rob Bonta and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a lawsuit against Huntington Beach for a local law that attempts to block the development of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), a violation of recent state housing law that allows property owners to subdivide a lot and build two ADUs. Newsom pulled no punches, calling Huntington Beach officials “the poster child for NIMBY-ism” in an official news release. (Taryn Luna, Hannah Fry and Hannah Wiley for the Los Angeles Times)
National: A Tennessee organization has filed a lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration in a conservative Texas court that aims to pull the abortion pill mifepristone out of the U.S. market. The group, vaguely named the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, claims the FDA did not adequately test the safety of the pill. Mifepristone, taken with another pill, misoprostol, accounts for more than half of all abortions in the U.S. The news of this lawsuit comes as pharmacy chain Walgreens, which was given authorization in 2021 to dispense the pill to those prescribed, announced it would no longer carry mifepristone in the 21 states where abortion is illegal. In retaliation, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state was “done” doing business with the pharmacy chain. (Sue Halpern for the New Yorker)
One Great Read
Many journalists who pride themselves as readers as much as writers see New Yorker profiles as a sort of crown jewel of the craft. When David Remnick, top editor of the magazine, claims the byline, the profile feels more like an event, especially when the subject is a cultural lightning rod such as Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, whose 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” made him the subject of a death decree issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, survived an on-stage assassination attempt last summer by a knife-wielding extremist. The ayatollah’s death decree and the attempt on Rushdie’s life were intolerable attacks on free speech and expression. Yet Rushdie, who spent much of the past 30 years outside of public view, has refused to stay silent.