Manu the senior supervisor? First-time politico battles ‘tangle of wires,’ resistance to inevitable change

Manu Koenig talks to a First District constituent at Anna Jean Cummings Park.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One year and three months into his first political foray, First District County Supervisor Manu Koenig has run into some walls, prodded himself into patience and picked up some things the hard way. But he says he’s learning and doesn’t seem deterred by the challenges he’s come up against thus far.

He’s only 15 months into his first term, but First District Supervisor Manu Koenig might soon become the most senior Santa Cruz County supervisor. As we move into election season, the banter of local political circles includes a growing sense that the new guy, who is already the commissioner of the board, will soon be the veteran.

County Supervisor Manu Koenig

With Ryan Coonerty and Greg Caput opting to bow out in November, Koenig, 36, will trail only Zach Friend and Bruce McPherson in board seniority. Most suspect those two will not run again in 2024 — meaning if Koenig runs for a second term, as most expect, he would become the board’s senior member.

That’s quite an ascension for a novice politico. Koenig rode into the political arena amid countywide acrimony over the rail corridor’s future, an agent for change in an area long averse to it — but maybe, possibly, finally ready to dip its toes in.

The rail-trail issue is hurtling toward some resolution with Measure D on June 7, when voters decide whether getting a pedestrian-use trail built more quickly should supersede any future plans for rail transit. It’s been no less of an acrimonious ride than when it began, but even as Regional Transportation Commission vice-chair, Koenig has been just one of many players in that ongoing drama.

Perhaps his biggest challenges 15 months into politics have come at the hyperlocal level within his district and not far from his own Live Oak neighborhood.

Don’t change our roads, the people of Pleasure Point told him vocally and forcefully when a pop-up transformation of Portola Drive surprised many neighbors in July. Don’t agree to affordable housing development proposals without our knowledge or input, the neighbors of Soquel and Capitola loudly opined in March.

The protected bike lane on Portola Drive was not a hit with those surveyed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In both instances, Koenig has learned important lessons. The Portola pop-up was only a trial, and the tribe appears to have spoken on its immediate future (see surveys on Page 59 here). While the Project Homekey proposal on Park Avenue could still move forward — a decision from the state is expected any day now — Koenig has expressed a need for better education and communication with his constituency.

He said he learned other lessons in his previous private-sector life at Civinomics — a Santa Cruz-incubated attempt to create a social network for civic engagement. Getting more community voices involved in the process is still his focus.

And, importantly, he hasn’t backed down from the edict that got him elected: change.

For the record, it’s MAH-noo, not MAN-noo. However it’s pronounced, Manu Koenig’s name now has a new currency in Santa...

“Things are going to change whether we do anything about it or not,” he says.

It seemed like a good moment to catch up with Koenig — whose name, we should remind you, is pronounced MAH-nu KOHN-ig — so we did. Here’s our conversation about the “tangled box of wires” that is government, key issues like homelessness and affordability, and the new Australian cattle dog he and his wife, Leah, adopted.

Manu Koenig snapped a selfie of himself and his new dog, Benji.
(Via Manu Koenig)

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: How does the job compare with what you imagined it would be?

Manu Koenig: The main thing is it’s a lot slower. It’s hard to get things done. You know, there’s a lot of consensus-building that needs to happen for anything, which involves a lot of working with staff. What I found is that when you propose a new idea, the biggest thing that can destroy a new proposal is staff resistance. We rely on them for a lot of expertise. And so I learned that the hard way once or twice.

Lookout: What percentage of people are saying your name right these days?

Koenig: I feel like it’s gotten pretty good. You know, maybe 65%.

Lookout: What’s surprised you most about the world of politics?

Koenig: One thing that’s really frustrating is all the limitations from different levels of government. One example is that homelessness — obviously, arguably, the biggest issue that our community faces — we have 40 different funding streams for homelessness, mostly state grants. And so they’re all for very specific things. So I can’t just go in there and say, “Hey, guys, we’re taking the $7 million, and spending it on tiny homes or buying a new property to build a work-based community.” All the restrictions around state grants are really limited. It’s also a challenge, for example, in trying to fix our road infrastructure. So I’ve got half a mind to start a statewide ballot initiative that really helps return a lot more local control over our finances, to the county and away from the state, because we’re wasting a ton of time and all this grant writing and grant management.

Santa Cruz County First District Supervisor Manu Koenig is sworn in during a ceremony at the supervisor chambers.
Santa Cruz County First District Supervisor Manu Koenig is sworn in Jan. 4, 2021.
(Patrick Riley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Sounds like the process of bureaucracy can be maddening.

Koenig: Complexity is the biggest challenge we face in government overall, right? When it comes to the other big issue, housing, there are just too many rules around what you can and can’t build and all the steps you’ve got to go through. It’s nice to have some ability to affect the process, but I feel like I’ve opened up the box of government and there’s just this incredible tangle of wires. It’s like, “Oh, this is clearly a problem, but what do I cut? I don’t want to cut the wrong thing.” And so it’s taking some time just to get to know the system and hopefully we’ll find some opportunities for greater efficiencies here.

Lookout: The fact you could be the longest-tenured board member pretty quickly here … is that exhilarating or scary?

County Supervisors Bruce McPherson of the Fifth District (left) and Zach Friend of the Second District.

Koenig: A little bit of both. I suppose. I mostly just feel a sense of responsibility about it. There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that goes into it into the job. I’ve been here a year and a quarter and I feel like I’m just starting to understand the machine. It’s not an easy job. And I can’t say that I’m jumping up and down saying, “Yes, I absolutely want four more years!” I’m looking forward to having some new members on the board who have a similar sense of urgency and eagerness to change things for the better.

Lookout: And soon it will be more diverse and younger. Are you already feeling somewhat of a generational pivot with your presence?

Koenig: Yeah, more diverse perspectives will be good. We’re kind of on the cusp of a fair amount of change on the board and I think the younger perspective is helpful.

Lookout: Do you get a sense that more millennials are taking an interest in what’s going on around them?

Koenig: I wish I could say so. It’s really hard to get people engaged. I wouldn’t say it’s surprising. For the most part, I hear from people who are just angry about things because of a specific project. And not just projects like Homekey, but I mean even putting in new sidewalks or a bike lane. So I think because not many millennials in our county are homeowners, people are more likely to have to work more than one job or they’re still going to school, they just don’t have as many opportunities to be civically engaged. I’m trying to change that. We have an opportunity with what’s gonna be the biggest change to our general plan here in 25 years, which is the sustainability update. We’re looking for ways to reach out to more representative groups of voters, of citizens and get them engaged in that process.

Lookout: Is there any way to make the system of governance more fun and sexy?

Koenig: The process itself is pretty dry — that’s true. I’ve realized that being on the board is definitely a job, right? There’s just all of these things that government has to do, that I have to do as a representative in government. It would be hard to change that fundamentally, but I do think that there’s hope in the way we engage the public. I think the answer is to move more towards a deliberative democracy model, which you can think of as proactive jury duty. Getting a random group of people together to talk proactively about a policy and how to shape it. So it’s kind of creating a new process rather than trying to make the old one fit in today’s world.

A rendering of the transformation from four lanes to three on Portola Drive.
(Via Ecology Action)

Lookout: You had heard from people in your district who wanted better pedestrian and bike safety, but the Portola pop-up kind of defied that logic.

Koenig: Yeah, the intentions were good; the goal was better bike and pedestrian safety. We saw very negative backlash to that project. That did surprise me. I’m trying to take it in stride and take a build-measure-learn approach. Take what we learned from that prototype. And hey, thank God it was just a prototype.

The reality is that it’s quickly turning into more of Carmel than a surf ghetto given the way home prices are going.

Lookout: Pleasure Point — what many of us lovingly call the “Surf Ghetto’"— is an interesting place that hasn’t seen the level change that the Westside has. And many people are afraid of it.

Koenig: I think it’s true that part of what touched a nerve there was you’ll see how fast the area’s changing right now already and having something tangible they could oppose or react to. The reality is that it’s quickly turning into more of Carmel than a surf ghetto given the way home prices are going. We’ve clearly been discovered, and telecommuting has allowed a lot more people to work from this side of the hill, with jobs that pay great.

Manu Koenig talked with Lookout about his first 15 months on the job.

Even in Live Oak as a whole, the average home price is now about $1.4 million and will probably go up another 22% this year, in Live Oak and Soquel both. So yeah, things are changing rapidly just because there’s so little housing inventory and so many people want to be here.

Lookout: It’s kind of the issue of our time. Is there any good answer for people feeling pushed out of this equation?

Koenig: As someone put it to me the other day, the reason that we live here is that our parents built housing and if we want our kids to live here, we’re gonna have to build housing for the next generation, too.

If we want our kids to live here, we’re gonna have to build housing for the next generation, too.

Lookout: This place has always fought to retain its small-town identity and never wanted to face future realities.

Koenig: We all point the finger and say it’s one thing or another, whether it’s the university or tech money. The reality is we live next to the biggest goldmine on the planet, Silicon Valley. And so, of course things are going to change and they’re going to change whether we do something about it or not. In fact, if we don’t do anything, they’ll probably change even faster because that just means less homes get built, so the homes around will go up in price faster. And that’s what we’re seeing. In some ways, to maintain the cultural vibrancy of Santa Cruz, we do need to build that housing.

Lookout: And then you have projects like Homekey on Park Avenue and the resistance to building comes out in full force.

Koenig: As it was going through the boring process at our meetings, no one showed up. And I think that really just demonstrates some of the shortcomings of the process. I mean, unless you’re paying attention ,you missed it. I also think that there’s just a fair amount of fear involved with any kind of change.

And, of course, the word “homeless” is very loaded in our community. And many people have imagined that this is going to be some kind of shelter project that’s going to attract people from all over the county to seek services. And of course, that’s not the case. This is basically just permanent apartments, long-term housing. And so the misinformation about what it actually is, I think also fuels it.

Manu Koenig fields questions from a crowd in Soquel.

Lookout: Homelessness was one of your core tentpoles in running for office, so how do you help educate your constituency better?

Koenig: One important piece of it is explaining who will be living there, getting some bios of the kinds of people we’re trying to house. I got one letter from someone talking about how excited they were about the possibility of finally being housed to have a chance to bake and, you know, have a cat. Those kinds of stories are kind of masked when we talk about homelessness in general. And I get why our community is traumatized by what we all see at San Lorenzo Park.

But the reality of homelessness is that it’s actually a bigger problem than that. It’s only about a quarter of the people who are homeless in our county that are living in encampments like that. We got a pretty sobering report at the board last week about how family homelessness is up and senior homelessness is up. So those are the very real consequences of having such a tight housing market. People of all stripes are just right on the edge of losing their housing and are losing their housing.

Lookout: Who would’ve thought a coastal trail could polarize a county as much as it has?

Koenig: It was already polarized when I got involved in 2015 — it’s kind of why I got involved. I guess I’m surprised it’s been so polarizing for so long. But having talked to a lot of people about it, I think the average voter is less polarized than the dialogue on the opinion page or in the online comments would lead us to believe. I think that a lot of people are not talking about it all that much. They just want a safe place to ride their bike or take their dog for a walk, and they’re wondering what’s taking so long.

Manu Koenig and his dog, Benji.
(Via Manu Koenig)

Lookout: I know you like to get out and surf — are you doing it?

Koenig: That is one area of my life where I definitely need improvement. I’ve been missing out. I get out occasionally, but not nearly as much as I would like. I guess on the plus side, the reason for that is that we got a new dog. Benji is a 13-month-old Australian cattle dog who we adopted from someone who had to give him up when his landlord changed the pet policy. It has been a great opportunity to get to know some of the trails in the area. It’s inspired me to work on more trail projects in mid-county.

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