Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley will leave it to residents to figure out 2024 affordable housing bond

Fred Keeley at a Lookout candidate forum in October
Fred Keeley at a Lookout candidate forum in October, when he said bringing a housing bond to the ballot would be a marquee part of his term as Santa Cruz mayor.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley says he plans to let community members lead on organizing the housing bond he has touted since he was on the campaign trail.

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For Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley, leadership can sometimes look like “followership.” And in that spirit, he plans to let the citizens take the wheel and develop the scope and viability of a 2024 housing bond that represented a foundational piece of his mayoral platform last fall.

The Santa Cruz City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to initiate a process to bring forward an “affordable workforce housing bond measure” for the March 2024 primary election. The agenda item, brought forward by Keeley and Councilmembers Scott Newsome and Sandy Brown, does not mention anything about shelter or housing for the homeless population, despite Keeley’s consistent messaging since his 2022 mayoral campaign that a 2024 bond would include funding for affordable housing and the “brick and mortar” side of homelessness response, i.e., shelter and permanent supportive housing.

Keeley says he sees building affordable housing as part of a homeless response; however, the first-year mayor says he will leave up to the public the decision about whether the bond should include money specifically for housing the homeless population. If the city council moves forward Tuesday, Keeley says a council subcommittee would, almost immediately, convene a series of three public meetings, on May 17, 24 and 31. Anyone in the public who attends can be involved, and will receive a first draft of the bond measure written by the city attorney, as well as financial forecasts and public polling results on bond appetite.

After those meetings on three consecutive Wednesdays, Keeley expects to know if a bond is possible, as well as its focus, and how much money it will be worth.

“This isn’t the Fred Keeley bond, this is the community’s bond,” Keeley said. “It may be that the community doesn’t want to do it. That’s an acceptable outcome to me. It may be that the polling says there is no appetite, then the community gets together and tries to work on it and says, ‘We don’t want it,’ that’s OK with me.”

The public could even play a critical role in literally putting the measure on the ballot. According to state law, if the city council voted to place the bond measure on the ballot, the measure would need two-thirds of voters to support it. However, if the bond measure was initiated through a citizen-led petition drive — such as Measures O and N last fall — the measure would require only a simple majority to pass. Keeley, who said he is a fan of “straight-up democracy, where everyone’s vote counts the same,” says the city could help facilitate the bond conversation but then push it off to community groups to launch a petition drive and get it on the ballot, subverting the two-thirds law.

“There is nothing in law that says a city council cannot prepare a measure that a community group can then circulate via petition,” said city attorney Tony Condotti. “It is a novel approach, but from a legal perspective, it appears to be doable.”

The community members who show up to the meetings in May will receive briefings, a look at the polling, and have access to the city attorney and other city staff who can help work through the technical details, Keeley says. He says he wants to see a bond on the 2024 ballot; however, as mayor, he doesn’t view his role in this as galvanizing the community toward some goal, but rather as facilitator of a debate and letting the community figure out its own fate.

“All of that collectively is the mayor assembling the resources of the city to focus them in on a public policy problem and inviting the public to help solve it. That, to me, is leadership,” Keeley said. “One of the things I’ve learned in 50-plus years in this kind of work is that leadership sometimes involves followership.”

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