Members of Santa Cruz City Council sworn in on Dec. 8, 2020.
On Tuesday, the most diverse City Council in Santa Cruz history will be sworn in.
(Images provided by City of Santa Cruz and councilmembers)

Santa Cruz’s most diverse city council ever, a group turning heads statewide, takes office

The most diverse City Council in Santa Cruz history took office Tuesday night, one that’s closing the gender gap and has a majority of seats held by leaders of color.

Outgoing Mayor Justin Cummings, who remains on the council, along with returning Council Member Martine Watkins, and newcomers Sonja Brunner and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, are all people of color.

Six of the seven council members — all except Cummings — are women. And Donna Meyers, who was sworn in as mayor by a vote of the new council on Tuesday evening, is the first openly lesbian mayor in the city’s history.

The fact that 86% of the council’s members are women (half women of color) is uncommon for a local government, not only locally, but statewide, said Susannah Delano, executive director of Close the Gap California, which recruits women to run for the California Legislature as Democrats.

When there are women in leadership, constituents reap benefits, Delano said, in part because gender gaps in local politics historically have fed other inequities that lead to social and economic problems.

“Women expand a governing body’s agenda, institute transparency and inclusion in proceedings, add depth and perspective to discussions and change the outcome of votes, and generally get things done,” she said. “Female representation in local government matters because imbalances at the local levels perpetuate the gender imbalance at the state level, and on up the pipeline to the federal level.”

Plus, the more women that occupy seats in local government, the greater the chance they’ll move into larger public service roles, said Cynthia Terrell, founder of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for more women in elected and appointed office.

“It not only helps to normalize women’s power in other sectors in the community,” Terrell said, but “also means there are women who are qualified, or perceived to be qualified, to step up to the next level of leadership.”

The Santa Cruz City Council is in stark contrast to the county’s Board of Supervisors, made up of five white men, and to California at large, which lacks gender parity in government, according to recent data.

Even with its diversity, the Santa Cruz City Council is still an imperfect reflection of the city’s racial makeup, since there are no Hispanic/Latin or Asian council members on it. According to 2019 U.S. Census estimates, Santa Cruz is:

  • 62.6% white (alone, not Hispanic or Latin)
  • 21.1% Hispanic or Latin
  • 9.8% Asian (alone)
  • 5.9% two or more races
  • 1.9% Black or African American (alone)

But the results of the latest election, resulting in the council that was sworn in this week, are still a milestone, Cummings said.

“This is meaningful because it is a reflection of what our community values,” he said. “Rather than focus on someone’s race, gender, or sexual orientation, voters demonstrated that they care about the experience and what candidates bring as individuals.”

Kalantari-Johnson, an Iranian American, is among the first people of Middle Eastern descent to serve on the council, and she is representative of the estimated 14% of people in Santa Cruz who were born outside of the U.S.

The new members also represent a variety of professional backgrounds, from teachers and scientists to grant writers and Housing Authority board members.

Yet even with its fresh makeup, the council has a difficult task ahead come January: leading Santa Cruz through the recovery process that follows a tumultuous year full of overlapping, lingering catastrophes.

Lookout Santa Cruz surveyed the council members on what their top priorities are in 2021. Here are their responses, edited for clarity:

Sandy Brown
Sandy Brown.
(Provided by Sandy Brown.)

Sandy Brown

Age: 48

Occupation & past leadership experience: Council member (incumbent) and instructor at San Jose State University. In the past, I was a community-labor organizer; human resources manager. I have also served on a variety of local and statewide boards and commissions, including: Santa Cruz County Women’s Commission, Santa Cruz City Citizens Police Review Board, Santa Cruz City Living Wage Advisory Committee; Housing California Board of Directors; California Institute for Rural Studies Board of Directors; Agricultural Justice Project Advisory Board.

Why did you run?
To serve as a progressive voice for residents at City Hall; to infuse principles of good governance, transparency, and responsiveness to community concerns.

What are your top priorities as a council member heading into 2021?
Affordable housing and accountable development; living wage jobs; pandemic responses that support our most vulnerable community members, including alternative emergency response programming; progressive, community-led efforts to improve our neighborhoods; sustainable transportation.

What does Santa Cruz need right now?
Open and responsive government.

Sonja Brunner
Sonja Brunner.
(Provided by Sonja Brunner)

Sonja Brunner

Age: 50

Occupation & past leadership experience: Vice Mayor of Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz County Housing Authority board chair, president of the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz, Visit Santa Cruz County board member; member of several other task forces and committees:

  • Santa Cruz Regional 911 Dispatch Center, Citizen Academy participant
  • Santa Cruz Chamber Women in Business, Steering Committee member
  • City of Santa Cruz Arts Master Plan, Steering Committee member
  • City of Santa Cruz Downtown Improvement Task Force, member
  • Santa Cruz Police, Citizen Academy participant
  • Santa Cruz County Coalition For Justice and Racial Equity

Why did you run?
Now we need persistent leadership to continue that trajectory. My experience working on small business development, affordable housing, and community building will help provide that leadership.

On the campaign trail, neighbors and small business owners have told me how important it is to have a person on our City Council with deep experience in small-scale economic development. For many years, my professional work has been focused on exactly that: small business development. In order to fund needed public services, we need a vibrant small business community that is generating local jobs and sales tax revenues.

The state of California will spend more than $4 billion on affordable housing in the next two years. I will work to get our fair share of those funds, so we can reduce homelessness, and increase opportunities for our school teachers, public safety and social service workers to live and work in the same community.

What are your top priorities as a council member heading into 2021?
Housing, economic rebound, public health and safety.

What does Santa Cruz need right now?
Funding sources and more love.

Justin Cummings
(Via Justin Cummings)

Justin Cummings

Age: 37

Occupation & past leadership experience: Environmental sensor technician and drone operator for the UC Natural Reserve System’s California Heartbeat Initiative. Former founding director of the UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. Mayor of Santa Cruz in 2020.

Why did you run?
What motivated me to run and continues to motivate me is the fact that Santa Cruz is very unaffordable for middle class working professionals. It impacts our ability to attract and retain talented individuals and if we are a community that values diversity and inclusion, then we need to ensure that Santa Cruz is a community that is affordable.

What are your top priorities as a council member heading into 2021?
Work with our community to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, continue to work with the community on improving public safety [and] work with elected officials throughout the County to determine how we can expand and improve our response to mental health related calls.

What does Santa Cruz need right now?
Santa Cruz needs resources from the Federal and State government to help our local government, businesses and families that have been devastated by the impacts of COVID-19. Our community has demonstrated that we are willing to comply with state mandates to social distance, wear masks, etc., but many people are falling deep into debt and the government should not let this happen. Our local government is trying to do everything we can to help our community, but we need more resources from the federal government.

Renee Golder
Renee Golder.
(Becky Foy/Becky Foy, provided by Renee Golder.)

Renee Golder

Age: 43

Occupation & past leadership experience: Council member (incumbent) and RtI (Response to Intervention) Coordinator for Santa Cruz City Schools, currently at Bay View Elementary School. I served on the City’s Public Safety Task Force and Sister Cities Committee. I also have been a parent site council representative and a PTA member at Santa Cruz High and Mission Hill Middle Schools, as well as a Board Member and Secretary of Santa Cruz Junior Guards Booster Club.

Why did you run?
Our community has given me so much to be grateful for: my wonderful husband of 18 years, two terrific children, an education and career that makes me smile every day and many rewarding relationships with my extended family, friends and neighbors. I felt it was time to give something back to the community I love so deeply.

What are your top priorities as a council member heading into 2021 and what does Santa Cruz need right now?
Now more than ever our wonderful community is also facing extraordinary challenges as we seek to address COVID-19 economic recovery, housing affordability, ensure environmental sustainability, provide quality jobs for working people, develop workable solutions to homelessness and create safe spaces for our kids.

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.
(J. Guevara, provided by Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.)

Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson

Age: 43

Occupation & past leadership experience: Grant Writer/Nonprofit Strategic Manager/Leadership Practitioner Coach. I have served on multiple boards and committees in a leadership role. Each of these work towards well-being. They include:

  • Pajaro Valley Health Trust Board, Board Chair (current)
  • Central California Alliance for Health, Commissioner (current)
  • United Way of Santa Cruz County, Community Assessment Project Steering Committee and Community Impact Committee (current)
  • Dignity Health, Community Advisory Board’s Community Giving Committee (current)
  • Dignity Health, Community Advisory Board , Board Chair (past)
  • County of Santa Cruz County Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee, appointed member (past)

Why did you run?
My life experience as an Iranian and an immigrant, my educational background (BA in Psychology and Master’s in Social Work), and lifelong career in community building and social change has set me on a path to working towards equity and well-being for all. I am able to listen, to hold multiple perspectives, and build partnerships. I am able digest data and make data driven decisions. I am able to leverage outside resources to address the needs of our community. I know that our community will be facing many challenges in the coming years and I know I can contribute my skills and experience to our community.

What are your top priorities as a council member heading into 2021?
Continuing to work with our county partners to address the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure an equitable COVID recovery; focus on economic recovery by working with our local businesses and seeking outside resources including capital from State and Federal Government; address housing disparities and its impacts, such as homelessness, by moving forward with housing projects that are in the cue while exploring other opportunities to build affordable housing.

These all fit within the recently selected priority areas of the city council Interim Recovery Plan, which includes-taking action to ensure short-term and long-term sustainability, investing in downtown and other business sectors, and improving and maintaining infrastructure.

What does Santa Cruz need right now?
Leadership that can transcend polarization and work together. We are and will continue to experience significant challenges over the coming years and it will take us working together as a community to find innovative solutions that can generate results.

We will also need to get aggressive about finding outside resources to help us out of the current budget crisis. It will be difficult for our city (any city) to do it on our own.

Donna Meyers
Donna Meyers.
(Provided by City of Santa Cruz)

Donna Meyers

Age: 55

Occupation & past leadership experience: Mayor of Santa Cruz. General Manager/Executive Director of the Salinas Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. I have lead nonprofit and government agencies for most of my career.

Why did you run?
I ran for City Council in 2018 at the request of many community leaders including several former mayors. I ran because my experience working in government and with nonprofits on public policy felt like an important contribution for the community. I have lived in Santa Cruz for 37 years and wanted to give back to my community by serving.

What are your top priorities as a council member heading into 2021?
My focus this year will be economic recovery, continued focus on bringing housing to our community, and acknowledging the threats that climate change and associated events like floods and sea level rise will bring to City infrastructure and neighborhoods in the future.

What does Santa Cruz need right now?
Santa Cruz needs leadership that is bold to not only recover from COVID but to also look to a more equitable future that includes diversification of our employment base, all types of housing, and commitment to commitment to working regionally on transportation solutions.

Martine Watkins
Martine Watkins.
(Provided by City of Santa Cruz)

Martine Watkins

Age: 40

Occupation: City council member (incumbent) and Senior Community Organizer at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education.

Why did you run?
Growing up here, I know firsthand Santa Cruz’s long history of resilience. My husband and I are fortunate to be raising our two young daughters here. Future generations depend on strong leadership. As your former mayor, I stand ready to meet the challenges we face today and rebuild for a better tomorrow. I firmly believe that in this pivotal moment in history, there lies an opportunity for transformation.

What are your top priorities as a council member heading into 2021?
I will bring government, education and community together to find solutions to both current and future challenges. Using the Health in All Policies framework, I will build on my past accomplishments and experience to:

  • Identify and interrupt systemic inequities;
  • Invest in a green economy and climate change solutions;
  • Support local businesses in recovery from COVID-19;
  • Support affordable housing and address homelessness;
  • Increase access to child care;
  • Create a safe and inclusive environment.

What does Santa Cruz need right now?
In the short term, Santa Cruz needs to prioritize the health and safety of our residents, work with providers to ensure those struggling have their basic needs met, and assisting Santa Cruz’s businesses to survive. This requires collaboration and state/federal resources, so partnership and advocacy is important.