A four-year mayor? Santa Cruz’s past mayors weigh in

Previous Santa Cruz mayors, from left to right: David Terrazas, Martine Watkins, Donna Meyers, Don Lane and Cynthia Mathews.
Previous Santa Cruz mayors, from left to right: David Terrazas, Martine Watkins, Donna Meyers, Don Lane, and Cynthia Mathews.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz and Brereton, Mohamed & Terrazas LLP)

Is having a four-year mayor a good idea? The June 7 primary ballot will give voters the choice of whether to create an at-large elected mayor position who serves a four-year term, or to keep the role as it stands currently. Five of Santa Cruz’s previous mayors share their thoughts on the potential change.

For 74 years, Santa Cruz has operated under a “weak mayor” system. That is, a mayor in a mayor-council method of government whose policy-making power is largely collective.

The mayor position has, historically, been designated by the city councilmembers, who vote each year to determine which of the members will assume the role for the coming year, traditionally on the basis of which newly elected councilor received the most votes in the previous election.

Voters could change that this June.

On the June 7 primary ballot, city voters will decide between two new districting models.

If more than half of voters vote “yes” to a six-district system with a four-year mayor elected at large, that will be Santa Cruz city’s new government system. If fewer than half of the voters vote in favor, indicating a “no” vote, the city will enact a seven-district system that keeps the current one-year rotating mayor position.

Either way, the districting of city council seats overall could herald a significant shake-up in Santa Cruz’s political landscape.

Still, all of these positions are considered part-time. The salaries for the new mayor position and councilmembers are not expected to change, with the mayor earning $3,750 per month and council members earning $2,050 per month.

Even with those caveats, those in Santa Cruz with mayoral experience hope that the notion of a four-year position will encourage stronger, more committed leaders in the future.

Lookout reached out to five previous Santa Cruz mayors — Don Lane, Donna Meyers, David Terrazas, Martine Watkins and Cynthia Mathews — who gave us their thoughts on a multitude of questions pertaining to the proposed shift in government.

While none of them opposed the four-year mayor approach— three (Lane, Terrazas, and Watkins) are in favor, one (Mathews) is mostly indifferent but supportive overall, and one (Meyers) is truly indifferent — two common themes emerged in their evaluation of the potential new system:

  • A four-year, at-large elected mayor ensures that one official represents the whole community instead of just one part of town;
  • The length of the four-year term could allow better ability to influence policy and complete major initiatives.

The five former mayors took on those questions, and those of workload, as we talked about unintended positives, negatives, and unintended consequences.

These responses have been edited for clarity.

Why are you for or against the system?

On balance, I think having a citywide elected mayor is a good idea since Santa Cruz is going to have district elections for city councilmembers.

— Don Lane (served as mayor in 1991, 2011 and 2015)

I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another on the two choices, I think there are pluses and minuses for both the one-year, council-elected mayor and a four-year, at-large-elected mayor. I think an at-large-elected mayor would be a tough job and would require a serious and committed candidate that understands the issues in Santa Cruz and is committed to working on them. The one-year, council-elected mayor makes it difficult to complete major initiatives.

— Donna Meyers (served as mayor in 2021)

I support a directly elected mayor and the proposed changes to the Santa Cruz city charter to help prioritize the needs of our city and to make our elected officials more accountable for local neighborhoods and the community at large. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to select how our local government operates and elects its representatives. I am strongly in favor of the proposed system.

— David Terrazas (served as mayor in 2018)

I think that there is a benefit to having a mayor who is full time and serves longer than just one year. With an at-large mayor system, we have an opportunity to elect a representative who will hold a citywide perspective, as opposed to a rotating mayor system in which individuals from various districts will likely serve as mayor for one year.

— Martine Watkins (served as mayor in 2019)

I’m actually somewhat ambivalent, but in the end supportive. I like the idea that someone has to campaign throughout the entire city, and be responsive to issues more generally and equally.

— Cynthia Mathews (served as mayor in 1996, 2005, 2008 and 2015)

What is the likeliest positive?

Having a mayor elected by the entire city will ensure that there is one official representing the entire community instead of just one section of town.

— Don Lane

A four-year mayor likely will be more impactful in seeing through policy initiatives, but only by building relationships with councilmembers on key goals. The mayor will still need to have at least three councilmembers vote for any initiatives spearheaded by the mayor.

— Donna Meyers

The benefits of a directly elected mayor will support accountability and results-oriented leadership by our elected officials. A directly elected mayor will have to campaign and talk to the entire city and its residents. Furthermore, an at-large, directly elected mayor will give voice to citywide concerns while allowing district councilmembers to focus on their districts. This will encourage long-term planning and leadership by our mayor.

— David Terrazas

Continuity of vision, parliamentary skill-building, and more time dedicated to serving in the role. (Often mayors, like councilmembers, have other jobs, many full time.) As we shift to districts, the at-large mayor will also be the one elected that will hold space for a citywide perspective. I think that is a good thing. Additionally, having a mayor serve for more than one year will enable them to not only adapt to the role and learn the parliamentary process, but also hopefully be a person who comes to the position with a larger vision for the entire city, policy priorities to accomplish their vision, and time to hopefully see them actualized.

— Martine Watkins

The most positive aspect would be the mayor’s clear commitment to look at citywide implications of decisions across many sectors, in terms of budget, land use, infrastructure and programs. It’s a steep learning curve, so the continuity of the mayor’s knowledge and relationships could be an advantage.

— Cynthia Mathews

FIND LOOKOUT’S LOCAL ELECTION COVERAGE HERE

What is the likeliest negative?

There could be substantial misunderstanding about the authority/responsibility/role of the mayor. Many will think that the mayor is the executive of the city even though the mayor’s powers will be quite limited.

— Don Lane

An elected mayor that does not have a clear vision for what they want to accomplish and so nothing gets accomplished. The mayor becomes more of a figurehead than productive policy-setter.

— Donna Meyers

As with any change, there will be challenges transitioning to the new structure. I believe that there will be further opportunity to make positive change based on this new governance system.

— David Terrazas

I’m unsure. Our form of government won’t change. I think that the council, mayor and city manager form of government provides a balance to weather longstanding potential negative impacts to ensure city business functions and that democratic principles are upheld. The form of government doesn’t change what we already have in place. The mayor won’t have any additional powers than they do now. They will just be directly elected. This is different from what some of the negative impacts might be if we were shifting to a strong mayor form of government.

— Martine Watkins

Being mayor is a heavy lift in terms of time, loss of privacy and high community expectations on complex, often divisive issues. It doesn’t pay much, so the challenge will be finding candidates who are willing to take on that challenge, with the values and temperament to be effective.

— Cynthia Mathews

What is the likeliest unintended consequence?

There could be more conflict between the mayor and the city councilmembers since they will be elected by different constituencies.

— Don Lane

That an inexperienced person gets into the four-year elected mayor role and does not have clarity about what cities do and don’t do.

— Donna Meyers

A more unified city with a focus on long-term improvements and a movement away from ad-hoc political decision-making.

— David Terrazas

There are many forms of local government structures. There is no one right way, and there is no way to know for sure if this is the form that best fits Santa Cruz.

— Martine Watkins

It all comes down to who runs and who gets elected. A four-year term could be very positive for the community, or chaotic and frustrating.

— Cynthia Mathews

Stay connected & support local journalism
We’re all about Santa Cruz County, from north to south and in-between. Members have unlimited access to our 24/7 local news coverage.