Take 5 With Ryan Coonerty

take5For the inaugural “Take 5”, I recently had the chance to chat with Ryan Coonerty, former Mayor of Santa Cruz and current author and businessman who will be running for the 3rd District Board of Supervisors seat, which represents the city of Santa Cruz.

I wanted to get Ryan’s feedback and opinion on the recent announcement by District Attorney Bob Lee on the launch of an 8 month pilot program that would bring a multi-agency “strike team” to Pacific Avenue. Ryan’s family has been a long time business owner downtown (they own Bookshop Santa Cruz), and they represent one of the longest and most successful tenants on Pacific Avenue.

5 questions with Ryan Coonerty:

1. District Attorney Bob Lee just recently announced a new pilot program that involves a number of different agencies and stakeholders, including the city attorney’s office, the district attorney’s office, the county courts, county probation, and non-profits like the Homeless Services Center. The goal of this program is to identify the top 100 criminal recidivists downtown and try to get them personalized help to reform their behavior. Your thoughts on this program? Do you think we’ll see successful outcomes after 8 months? What do you feel are the key factors for success here?

RC: I’m very excited about the program. This is something we have been working on for more than three years. These repeat offenders take up an enormous amount of time and resources. Not only are they disruptive and at times dangerous, but they force all of our services (public safety, judicial and social services) to constantly be reactive to these disruptions rather than proactive about finding longer term and sustainable solutions. I hope to see reduced arrests, less disruptions and better outcomes for the community and offenders alike.

2. I know you and your family have been long time business owners downtown, and your family business goes beyond what most other downtown businesses are willing to facilitate. One example is that Bookshop Santa Cruz is one of only 3 downtown businesses willing to make their restrooms open to the public. Do you think this new pilot program will be able to impact the “bad behavior” problem that seems to be problematic to Pacific Avenue and the downtown district in general? Does it go far enough? Do you see ways to enhance this project to increase the chance for successful outcomes?

RC: I do think it will impact behavior. My father and I initiated the Serial Inebriate Program and the MOST programs. Every day I see positive impacts from those efforts and this one is much more comprehensive. The reality is that you can have thousands of people having a great time downtown and two or three people acting out can ruin it. This focuses on those few people who spoil it for everyone.

3. Bob Lee also spoke about “transparency” in the program, which I think is one of 2 basic requirements the community should demand for any funded project (the other being “accountability”). I think this is critical to gaining the public trust. Given the challenges of working in a multi agency group, each with a different interpretation of what ”transparency” means, what is the best way to insure transparency in the overall project? What are your thoughts on how we can get the community to buy in to this idea and trust the program to deliver tangible results?

RC: The best part of having this list of chronic offenders is that health and public safety officials will be able to measure the effectiveness by reviewing the list. How many people are in jail? How many people got the treatment they needed and are no longer a problem? That list is a great opportunity for accountability and also frankly to see how complex the problems are. Everyone seems to have a silver bullet solution, but the reality is that each one of these people require a customized and coordinated response.

4. There’s been a number of questions about how to pay for such a program that Bob Lee discussed. It seems to me that funding for such a program should mostly come from the county, as a majority of stakeholders represent the county, and social services funding should be a county responsibility first. I also think this program could fit under the guidelines for using a “Pay For Success” model such as the use of Social Impact Bonds. It seems if the program can show it successfully reduces recidivism to the extent it can pay for the program and reduce costs to the community, the county could seek a private funding partner to help underwrite the cost of the program. What are your thoughts on how such a program should be financed and paid for?

RC: We all pay a huge amount for the existing services (public safety, courts, lawyers, jail, emergency rooms, social services) and are not getting great outcomes. I think a lot of that lack of success comes from not coordinating across all of these functions. With cooperation, we can get better outcomes without additional costs. Having said that, if this works and there are some additional costs, then I will fully support any expenditures necessary to keep it going. It is vital that everyone feel good about our public spaces.

5. What are your thoughts on how the community can get more involved to increase the chances for success here. For instance, I’d like to see some kind of online reporting mechanism, something like a smart phone app, that could be used to report individuals directly to someone in the new “street team” group, who could then take quick and immediate action. Do you have any ideas on how to better engage the community in the long term success of this idea that Bob Lee has proposed as a pilot program?

RC: We need citizens to engage and report illegal behavior. Those calls and arrests are how this program will focus on who the top offenders are. 100 people is a lot to focus on and these chronic offenders’ behavior tends to ebb and flow based on who is on their medication or who is using what drug or alcohol.
However, the biggest thing people can do is to come downtown and just be present and positive. As Mayor, I never got calls when it was busy downtown. We could put a police officer and social worker on every block, but the more families there are having fun, the safer it feels.

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