Coonerty: Data drove my work, but Santa Cruz’s stories have my heart

Supervisor Ryan Coonerty speaking outside Santa Cruz City Hall
Supervisor Ryan Coonerty speaking outside Santa Cruz City Hall in August.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ryan Coonerty is bidding farewell to public life after 16 years in office. Here, he talks about his legacy, his Santa Cruz family’s addiction to stories (his sister owns and runs Bookshop Santa Cruz) and why atoms rightly rule the universe. He also shares his biggest mistake.

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After 16 years in local office, I know I should share some hard-earned wisdom about leadership or list of accomplishments.

But doing so would be boring and self-serving — two things I aspire not to be after elected office. So, instead, I thought I’d talk about one thing I got wrong (anyone who is not satisfied with just one thing can ask my colleagues and wife for a longer list).

Living in a family of booksellers, one learns quickly that stories are essential.

My grandmothers told amazing, if not always truthful, stories. Both believed vehemently in not letting facts get in the way of a good story. This led to my parents, and now my sister, making their living in stories.

They believe a good novel tells more truth about the human condition than any study or chart ever could. They often cite the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s observation that “the universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

That quote is beautiful. It is also factually wrong. The universe is actually made of atoms, described by science and math.

Stories are wonderful things but they are just that, stories.

They don’t need to adhere to the laws of gravity, economics or science, or reality for that matter. In recent years, we have seen stories hijack our politics with incredibly dangerous consequences.

For most of my life, politics in Santa Cruz has been dominated by stories. The state of our community is determined by anecdotes. People have argued with each other over the story of Santa Cruz for decades, rather than engaging with what the data says our community is.

In elected life, I wanted to counter what I saw as those ridiculous myths and storytelling. I believed that those stories were preventing us from finding solutions to our challenges.

So I became obsessed with data. My time in office has been about gathering, analyzing and demanding data. I was relentless and, at times, obnoxious about it. But I found allies on the board of supervisors and in county staff and we began tracking everything.

You can now see the results of that effort in the county’s operational plan dashboard, which is tracking 180 objectives in real time. We see it in the rebuilding and COVID dashboards as well as community program contracts. We can compare ourselves in key metrics to similar counties and see how we rank. I’m proud to say that Santa Cruz County is a national leader in using data to make better decisions, get better outcomes and do continuous process improvement.

During the crises of recent years, data saved lives.

Day to day, it means better services and programs for residents and especially the most vulnerable. With data, tax dollars are saved, public safety increased, our environment protected.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been poring over that data to see what impact my policies might have had. I’m happy to report that for the most part, the trend lines are good – including marked improvements in emission reductions, prenatal visits, housing families, a strong bond rating and more. We should be proud of what we accomplished.

Ryan Coonerty (left) during his final meeting of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.
Ryan Coonerty (left) during his final meeting of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But after eight years of my haranguing county staff, community program managers and anyone who was forced to interact with the county for fewer stories and more and better numbers, the data analyzed by my brain is no match for the stories held in my heart.

I’m moved by the times I saw my elected colleagues absorb hours of abuse and take hard, unpopular votes on everything from housing to mask mandates because they believed it was best for the community.

I’m inspired by the conversations I had with the county’s professional staff about managing exhausted and scared human beings in an unparalleled series of crises. And seeing dedicated county workers put aside their fears to do their job for this community when it mattered most.

I remember talking to people who wept as they told me that they lost everything in the fires. I will also never forget seeing hundreds of community members show up to help. I witnessed the same magnificent response to COVID-19, the Trump administration’s attacks on vulnerable populations, and the murder of Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller.

For all the hours we spent in staff meetings crafting “additional direction and report backs about outcomes” to the board’s agenda items, as I clean out my office, I can remember only the laughter and passion of meetings with my brilliant and committed staff.

I guess what I am saying is that we have good data in this community, but we have a great story.

We don’t tell those stories enough. Stories about the way we help each other, care about our environment, support small businesses. Stories about the world we want for our kids.

The Santa Cruz story is a unique and amazing one. I’m grateful to the voters for letting me be a bit character in it for a little while.

I can’t wait to hear the next chapter from our new leaders and chief storytellers.

Ryan Coonerty is a former mayor of Santa Cruz and soon-to-be-former Santa Cruz County supervisor. He is the host of “An Honorable Profession” podcast. His previous piece for Lookout, “Hey Santa Cruz, let’s take a break from political measures,” appeared in November.

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