In this edition of In the Public Interest, Christopher Neely examines efforts by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to increase public access to restrooms, whether that’s through ordinances requiring private businesses to open their bathrooms, or an incentive program to encourage them.
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.
Centerfold: Potty talk
Howard Schultz, CEO of America’s public restrooms — or Starbucks, as some call it — toyed with a policy change last year, proposing that users of its bathrooms should perhaps first be patrons of the coffee shop’s business.
This was quite the shift from the company’s 2018 directive that Starbucks’ restrooms would be open to the public, patrons and nonpatrons alike. Although Schultz’s comments didn’t evolve into an actual change — you can still go into Starbucks in Santa Cruz County and use its restrooms without buying anything, though you might need to ask for a code — it did ignite a conversation around restrooms as a public amenity, the modern challenges of providing them, and the questionable tactic of American cities to outsource this amenity to private businesses like Starbucks.
Today in Santa Cruz County, as elsewhere in the U.S., the overriding presumption is that you need first to be a customer before gaining entry to a private business’s bathroom. For someone without a dollar to spend, Starbucks feels like the only private business to bet on when nature calls. However, local officials are hoping that might soon change in the unincorporated areas of the county.
This week, in response to a unanimous March 14 vote from the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, Board Chair Zach Friend will send a letter to the chambers of commerce across the county requesting they ask their member businesses to voluntarily open their restrooms to the nonpaying public. The key word, of course, is voluntarily.
Former South County supervisor Greg Caput initially proposed the idea, in what he called his “final shot” during his ultimate meeting in December 2022. Caput offered only anecdotal evidence during that December meeting, saying he noticed a lot of businesses in South County closing their bathrooms off to the public, and waxed nostalgic about his childhood, when his mother would carry around nickels, the currency to gain access to public restrooms. Caput wanted either an ordinance to require private businesses to open their bathrooms, or an incentive program to encourage them.
In documents, Carlos Palacios, the county’s top executive, acknowledged the need for more public restrooms, as the lack thereof can be tough on older adults and those with disabilities. The county sees a need for greater public access to restrooms but cannot do anything itself, blaming, among other maladies, “staffing constraints due to the workforce shortage.” Consequently, the county wants to see private businesses step up and meet this need, but it has no mechanism to do so, according to Friend. So, Caput’s final hope for a bathroom ordinance or incentive program has devolved into a request for voluntary action.
“Restrooms are not just an amenity, they are something people rely on,” Friend said. “Moving toward a presumption of access is great.”
Increasing access in private businesses is easier asked than practiced, especially if the request is voluntary. The City of Santa Cruz has a program that offers stipends to downtown businesses that open their restrooms to the nonpaying public, though participation has always been meager. Pre-pandemic, only two or three businesses opened their restrooms; today, Bookshop Santa Cruz is the only business in the program.
Sonja Brunner, director of operations at the Downtown Business Association and a member of the Santa Cruz City Council, tells me the challenges of open restrooms, in both the private and public sector, are many.
“It takes a lot of work to maintain a public bathroom,” Brunner said. “Even at the city’s public restrooms inside parking garages, we’ve had toilets smashed, trashed bathrooms. It’s hard to have people in there all the time, cleaning it and maintaining it.”
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Casey Beyer, head of the Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, says he is unsure how the member businesses will respond. For the San Lorenzo Valley Chamber of Commerce, president Mary Andersen says there was little support overall, and unanimous opposition (so far) from storefront owners. After I inquired about the forthcoming letter from the board, she surveyed the chamber’s members, and shared some of the anonymous responses she received.
“Many SLV storefronts are a one-woman show and it would not be feasible to let the general public into their back storeroom areas unsupervised to do as they please,” reads one. “Also, many potential SLV businesses can’t even open their doors due to restrictive septic regulations. So no, this is a non-starter.”
“Businesses should either be able to charge for access (since they have to pay for infrastructure and upkeep) or limit use to actual customers,” reads another.
For those who do voluntarily comply, it would be the second public bathroom access change brought on by the government this year. A state bill (AB 1632) went into effect on Jan. 1, requiring businesses that are open to the public provide bathroom access to people with medical conditions that “require immediate access to a toilet facility.” Beyer tells me the members of the county chamber received a presentation on their need to comply with the new law earlier this year.
Costa-Hawkins watch: If you see someone collecting signatures outside a business, it may be for yet another statewide effort to repeal the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act. That law, passed in 1995, severely restricted California’s ability to protect renters: It prohibited cities and counties from implementing rent control on multifamily structures built after 1995; and stopped local jurisdictions from enforcing vacancy controls, which means after a tenant vacates a rent-controlled unit, the landlord can hike the price to whatever they want.
A repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Act made its way to the state ballot in 2018 and 2020, but failed overwhelmingly, thanks in large part to a full-court press of opposition from one of the state’s most powerful and moneyed lobby groups — the California Association of Realtors.
Disaster watch (again): No, not storm-related. The Pacific Fishery Management Council announced last month that, for only the second time in history, it would be shutting down salmon fishing in California due to depleted chinook salmon populations. That means financial hardship for fishermen in Monterey Bay and beyond who depend on salmon. On April 6, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration requested yet another federal disaster declaration, this time related to the fishery. If approved, the federal government will be able to help businesses experiencing hardship due to the salmon fishery closure.
Know This Number
The approximate number of public restrooms in unincorporated Santa Cruz County, according to County Parks Director Jeff Gaffney. Most of these restrooms are in county parks, and also include county buildings such as the courthouse.
The Week Ahead
Tiny homes on wheels: The California Coastal Commission is scheduled to vote Friday on whether to allow tiny homes on wheels within the county’s coastal zone. The tiny homes on wheels debate stretches back to 2021, and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors approved its tiny homes on wheels ordinance in December 2022. The up to 400-square-foot dwelling units, on wheels, are allowed elsewhere in the county, but require a Coastal Commission nod before they are allowed near the coast.
CARE Courts: This might be a presentation at the Santa Cruz City Council, but the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment (CARE) Courts legislation will have a significant impact on the whole county. Passed in August with overwhelming bipartisan support, the CARE Court law calls for counties to set up new court systems that will work to force those with untreated mental illnesses to seek treatment and special housing, marking a stark shift in how the government addresses mental illness, especially in the houseless community.
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New planning commissioner: The Santa Cruz City Council will appoint a new planning commissioner Tuesday following Mark Mesiti-Miller’s resignation. Mesiti-Miller was a member of the majority on the seven-member commission that often saw a 5-2 split on large developments (with progressive commissioners Cyndi Dawson and Sean Maxwell in the minority). The vacancy is an at-large seat and will require approval from a majority of councilmembers. Mayor Fred Keeley says he believes the city council will vote for whomever District 4 City Councilmember Scott Newsome nominates, as he is the newest councilmember and has yet to nominate a planning commissioner. It is unlikely Newsome’s nomination will shake up the existing 5-2 majority. The list of possible appointees can be found here.
Tweet for the record: The Watsonville City Council will vote to update its city council protocols for the first time since 2014. The biggest change? An official policy — in practice, it’s really just a heads-up — on social media. The new protocols say city councilmembers’ personal social media accounts used to conduct city business — for instance, if they are used to alert the public of an event or a public issue — become subject to public records requests.
Weekly News Diet
Local: Back on March 21, a rare weather event brought hurricanelike conditions to the Santa Cruz Mountains, with winds that dislodged dozens of 60,000 to 90,000-pound trees and tossed them through houses, destroying approximately 50 homes. The aftermath looks more akin to a tornado or explosion. Neighbors in the mountain communities recall it sounded like “death” and say they’ve never seen anything like it.
Golden State: Pandemic habits die hard, even for the state government, and even when those habits harm the public’s right to know. Reporters covering California’s state government have had an increasingly difficult time obtaining interviews, information or transparency, as the bureaucrats continue to rely on pandemic-era practices such as submitting statements instead of interviews, asking for questions in advance, offering limited press conferences and generally dodging accountability. As David Loy of the First Amendment Coalition is quoted as saying in this piece, “The people need to know the full story, not just the official story.”
(Alexei Koseff for Cal Matters on April 6)
National: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been accepting, and failing to disclose, lavish gifts from billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow, according to an investigation by a trio of reporters from the venerable ProPublica. What kind of gifts? Vacations on Crow’s superyacht and stays at his private resort, as well as travel on his private jet. The failure to disclose the gifts appears to violate a law passed after the Watergate scandal that requires justices to disclose most gifts.
(Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott and Alex Mierjeski for ProPublica on April 6)
One Great Read
“The Man Who Fixes the World’s Finest Violins” by Elly Fishman for Chicago Magazine
Chicago-based John Becker has earned a reputation as the planet’s greatest living violin doctor, and is the go-to caretaker for many of the world’s remaining Stradivarius violins. His clients include wunderkind turned master solo violinist Joshua Bell, who, in this story, entrusts Becker with his 310-year-old instrument, estimated to be worth $15 million, ahead of a tour in South America and Italy. (Bell is actually playing a four-night stand with the San Francisco Symphony this month.)
Author Elly Fishman elegantly paints a portrait of Becker’s mastery and the lionized reputation of the Stradivarius violin, engineered by Antonio Stradivari, one of the two great violin makers in history. Only 650 of these violins, built in the 18th century, survive today, and each has its own name and ledger of former owners. (One of the violins, the Molitor, is rumored to have been owned by Napoleon.)
In a modern market that seems to celebrate the jack of many trades, the tale of a refined master such as Becker stands in inspiring contrast. “He’s probably as fine a woodworker as lives on the planet today,” one Stradivarius collector told Fishman. “Without men like him, these things would have decayed into splinters long ago.”
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Want more? Sign up here for Christopher Neely’s In the Public Interest and all of Lookout’s other newsletters