Lynda Hopkins is running for her second term as Fifth District Supervisor on the March 3 ballot. Whip smart, accessible and hands-on, Hopkins is one of the most popular politicians in west county, and for months it was assumed that she’d run unopposed and have an easy waltz to victory.
The Fifth District is the largest and most varied supervisorial district in Sonoma County. It encompasses all of west county and stretches north along the coast to the Mendocino County line. The southern end of the district curves east to Highway 101, taking in a large swath of southeast Santa Rosa, including Roseland.
In part because of its size, the Fifth District is notoriously difficult to represent, and in the last few months, a nascent opposition to Hopkins has appeared in Roseland.
Roseland resident Stuart Kiehl, who blames Hopkins for the homeless encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail, has started a recall campaign against her, and another Roseland resident, Mike Hilber, a newcomer with no political backing, has submitted paperwork to run against her for supervisor.
For her part, Hopkins is keeping her eyes on the prize and also keeping up a breakneck schedule of meetings with constituents and colleagues. Hopkins is on 10 local political boards, the variety of which gives a sense of the breadth of issues the supervisors deal with:
She’s on the boards of the Santa Rosa Groundwater Sustainability Agency, Sonoma Clean Power and LAFCO, the Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees special districts. She’s also on all of the county ad hoc committees (ad hoc committees are temporary and tend to focus on a specific item, task or objective), including the Fire Ad Hoc, the EMS Ad Hoc, the Climate Change Ad Hoc, the Cannabis Ad Hoc and the Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ad Hoc. She’s also on the board of the First Five Commission for Affordable Child Care and Early Childhood Development and on the Leadership Council for Homelessness/The Continuum of Care board, which is attempting to re-envision how homeless services are delivered in Sonoma County.
“It’s crazy,” she said after spieling off the long list. “That’s just the things I have to go to, on top of trying to be with constituents and trying to drive positive debate and positive change in the community.”
A track record of victories, large and small
Hopkins arrived in the supervisor’s office four years ago as a political novice, touting her experience as an organic farmer. But she immediately proved herself a skilled policy wonk — not such a surprise, perhaps, for a Stanford grad with a longstanding interest in land use and public policy.
One of the first things she did was take a data-driven approach to figuring out why the roads in west county (she lives in Forestville) were so terrible.
“Turned out that no one had ever actually run the analysis of what’s the percentage breakdown by supervisorial district on roads funding and how many miles of roads each district contained,” she said, noting that the Fifth District contains more miles of roads than all of Marin County.
“One of my first things in office was putting an Excel spreadsheet together about that. I made an argument that we had actually been under-invested in … and got more road money, so that was exciting. We invested more money in west county roads that have ever been invested on an annual basis by any previous Fifth District supervisor so I’m really proud of that,” she said.
She also delighted in her work putting together the Fifth District’s first municipal advisory councils (MACs) for the Lower Russian River Area and the Sonoma Coast. MACs are elected, semi-governmental bodies that give unincorporated areas a louder voice in the political process.
“That was something that I ran on: How do we empower rural communities?” Hopkins said. “I’m trying to channel that unincorporated community voice in a way that will lift it up and elevate it. It’s a huge, ongoing goal of mine, and I feel like we have made a great step in the right direction with the formation of the MACs.”
Hopkins is also proud of the work she’s done reducing homelessness in Guerneville and other Russian River towns, like Forestville, where working with multiple agencies, she put the kibosh on a nascent homeless encampment that began growing in a Park & Ride at the corner of Mirabel and River Road.
“I'm proud of the investment that we made in addressing homelessness in the lower Russian River,” she said. “We’ve seen a 20% decline in homelessness in that area since I’ve been in office, despite floods and fires. That is really the result of working very closely with the community and with our service providers and investing $1 million of one-time funds to try to address what was a crisis when I walked into office. That was really gratifying, even though obviously the homelessness crisis continues and has become very, very visible in western Santa Rosa again in recent months.” (See Part 2 of this article online, or in next week’s print edition, for a discussion of Hopkins’ attempts to deal with the issue of homelessness on the Joe Rodota Trail issue.)
Hopkins also mentioned two smaller victories that didn’t get much press: getting the county to stop spraying pesticides on county land and getting the county to divest from companies involved in immigrant detention centers.
The pesticide ban was a small but significant victory that Hopkins said took an inordinate amount of bureaucratic wangling.
“It took two years and dozens of meetings. When it was done, people were like, ‘Oh yeah. That’s nice,’ and I thought ‘You have no idea how hard this was to move this dinosaur through this process.’”
These sorts of challenges — road repair, homelessness, environmental issues — were the kind of thing that Hopkins expected to spend most of her time on when she first became supervisor.
But Mother Nature had other ideas.
Four years of fire and flood
When the Russian River flooded just days after Hopkins took office in January 2017, she couldn’t have guessed that dealing with disaster would be an ever-present theme of her time in office.
The Tubbs Fire ignited later that fall — it was briefly the worst wildfire in California history before it was surpassed by the fires in Paradise and Butte County. Sonoma County spent all of 2018 recovering from that catastrophic fire and preparing for the next one, which came in October 2019 with the Kincade Fire. That was preceded earlier in the year by one of the worst floods on the Russian River in decades.
“I’ve had to spend a lot of my time in disaster recovery mode,” she said. “That was not something I expected walking into this job.”
All in all, Hopkins figured she has spent an astounding 90% of her time in office under a declaration of disaster. (A declaration starts with the disaster and continues through the cleanup and recovery.)
Although both the Tubbs and Kincade fires were outside her district, they still devoured her time — and that of every other supervisor.
“The Tubbs Fire didn’t involve my constituents … but it was a moment to really take a countywide perspective and help people. Seeing the whole community come together and all pull in the same direction was a really amazing experience.”
The Kincade Fire led to the evacuation of all west county, a move she supported because fire models predicted that the blaze could jump the freeway at Windsor, ignite the western foothills and burn its way down the Russian River Valley to the sea.
Hopkins won kudos up and down the river for her hands-on approach to flooding on the Russian River. She gave out her personal cell number at large public meetings and told people to call her whenever they needed something.
She found last year’s flood on the Russian River, which displaced thousands, particularly difficult.
“That was a very frustrating experience because it was the first time in living memory that we had a flood of that magnitude in the Russian River where we did not get immediate federal assistance, because we were the only community impacted,” she said. Because the atmospheric river stalled over a relatively small area (the towns along lower Russian River), the disaster wasn’t large enough to qualify for federal money.
“We didn’t get that help, but I was able to secure some county general funds for a rapid rehousing program to get folks who were displaced by the flood into housing.”
The state of California ultimately did pony up $3 million — $1.5 million for the city of Sebastopol and, a few months later, another $1.5 million for the much harder hit Russian River.
“We are currently working with our municipal advisory council to figure out how we want to spend that money,” Hopkins said.
Though Hopkins proved adept at responding to disaster after disaster, it came at a cost, she said.
“It feels like we are always either in a disaster or recovering from a disaster,” she said. “The fact that we have spent so much of our time in crisis makes it challenging to work on long-term solutions.”
In addition, she said, “There’s an emotional toll in the community right now. It's really hard. Because we've had so many disasters, and because, quite frankly, things seem very precarious on a national and international scale right now, I just feel like there’s palpable anxiety in the community which leads to frustration and anger, which is totally understandable.”
That sense of frustration and anger, however, would soon crystallize into action in a part of Hopkins’ district that many people in west county don’t even realize is part of the Fifth District: Roseland.
Part 2 of this article, which can be found online, starting on Jan. 27, and in print in next week’s issue, discusses Hopkins efforts to deal with homelessness along the Joe Rodota Trail and her priorities for the next four years, should she be re-elected.