November 27, 2019

A California wine country mayor counts on collaboration and data to help solve his city’s toughest problems

After retiring as chief of police, Tom Schwedhelm applies lessons of leadership to inform his new role as Santa Rosa's mayor.

As a retired Police chief, Tom Schwedhelm has real world experience in dealing with the complex issues in his northern California community.

Santa Rosa, California, Mayor Tom Schwedhelm is a teamwork guy. As a 30-year veteran of the city’s police department—he worked his way up the ranks until retiring as police chief in 2013—he’s seen his fair share of leadership styles. For him, collaborating with constituents and community leaders at the local (the city has 1200 employees), county, and state level is his guiding principle.

Using the police department hierarchy as an example—where the chief rules from the top-down—Schwedhelm approaches his City Hall gig as more of a “team sport,” where everyone has a different role to play and his happens to be mayor.

Elected in 2018, Schwedhelm is approaching the midpoint of a two-year term as the leader of the largest city in California’s famed Sonoma County. We spoke with him recently about his region’s ambitious plan to reduce homelessness, his goal to use data to drive important decisions, and how local businesses play a role in rebuilding Santa Rosa after a recent wildfire.

We also asked this wine country mayor to tell us his favorite varietal (Hint: It’s not merlot!).

Check out our conversation below and follow Mayor Schwedhelm on Twitter @TomSchwedhelm.

This Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

THE RENEWAL PROJECT: Homelessness is an issue across California (where nearly half of the United State’s unsheltered homeless population live). What’s your city’s approach to combating homelessness?

MAYOR SCHWEDHELM: One of the things that I’m a big believer in is evidence-based practices and letting data drive our decisions. There’s still got to be a little bit of room for emerging strategies, so we struggle with that. Because for me, in both this role in my role at the city council, I want to make sure we have a return on investment. If you’ve done any research on homelessness, you see a lot of a lot of emotional decisions. You know, nonprofits want to help, but quite frankly some of those donations and efforts are actually lengthening the amount of time someone experiences homelessness rather than ending it. And that’s been my big push: Let’s stop just trying to manage homelessness. Why don’t we try to end it?

What is your next big goal as mayor?

Overall, I’d love to get us to functional zero. So you’ll never get absolute zero when it comes to homelessness. There’s always going to be some people moving into and out of homelessness. Functional zero is the point that, if someone experiences homelessness, within 30 days we will have a permanent housing place for them.

I have done research into other communities that have achieved functional zero. Many communities have achieved functional zero with special populations such as veterans. There are counties in Pennsylvania that have achieved functional zero with veterans. There’s Bergen County in New Jersey, they’ve achieved functional zero and that’s a city that’s not too different from Santa Rosa demographically. So I like to look at those cities and model after them and say, how can we achieve that here?

So the way it works in Santa Rosa, the mayorhood is a two-year term. I don’t have an expectation that we’re going to achieve functional zero during my term as mayor, but I’m trying to set the framework and policies and practices so that we are on the path of achieving that.

The other big issue that we have [is] you may be familiar with wildfires that hit our community in October 2017. So we’re coming up on a two-year anniversary, which is scary because the insurance may be running out for many of these folks. I’m going to Washington, D.C. for the third time at the end of October to try to encourage the dollars through FEMA and HUD that have been allocated to California 2017 disasters to actually get released to those communities.

What I have tried to do is set the tone on city council to not make this an adversarial conversation, make it a community conversation.

One of my strategies as mayor is to put a name and a face in front of these folks who are making the decisions. [I will] fly to D.C. more often to let them know we’re not going away. This money is meant for these people who experienced this horrific fire. So I’m hoping to be a little bit more successful before the end of my term and actually get some more of those dollars into Santa Rosa so we can build more housing.

What’s the job that best prepared you for being mayor?

I retired in 2013 as the chief of police, so working all the way through the ranks, seeing different leadership styles, different city managers—you get a little bit of an understanding of the way they manage their organizations. I’m a big believer of, it’s a team sport among the city departments.

Let me use the police department as an example. It’s a hierarchical organization: The chief’s at the top, then you have captains, all the way down to entry-level employees. I look at more of the circle where we all have a different role and my role happens to be chief of police, but it’s just as important as our dispatcher who’s answering our 911 calls. That’s the strategy and philosophy I take when I joined the city council. It’s not about what’s best for me; it’s what’s best for the city. Yes, we still have some 4-3 votes, but if we disagree, it’s a difference of opinion. If there was one strategy that would guarantee we’ll get to functional zero in Santa Rosa, we’d be doing it, but it’s not that easy. There are real human beings involved.

What I have tried to do is set the tone on city council to not make this an adversarial conversation, make it a community conversation.

Having had the experience from the police department was very helpful. And then there’s one hugely beneficial educational experience. My graduate degree is in organizational development—it’s actually a psychology degree focusing on organization development. You’re helping organizations become more efficient [and] effective in a more humanistic way. That was a great foundation for me to develop that into what [I did] as the chief of police and now on the city council and as mayor. It helped me identify those hot points that I have so that I’m not letting my own baggage get in the way of progress for my city or my department. That was far and away one of the greatest tools that has helped me.

It seems like it is a kind of the perfect tool kit to have for somebody who’s running a city with so many moving parts. Let me ask you about connecting with your constituents. What’s your favorite way to connect with or listen to residents?

Going to where they are. In Coffey Park [where I live], we have two monthly meetings and an organization called Coffey Strong was formed shortly thereafter. I go to every one of their meetings and we also bring along city staff. What’s made me so proud to be representing the city is, it’s neighbors helping neighbors. We’re problem solving.

The mayor’s neighborhood, Coffey Park, suffered some of the most severe damage in a 2017 wildfire. Nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed in Santa Rosa. 2018 file photo by George Rose/Getty Images

We lost 3,100 homes, we have 3,100 different developers, and you have people living within that development. So it’s a unique set of circumstances and so going to those meetings and hearing what their concerns are, even just a couple blocks from my house. I like going to meetings and not calling my own meetings and have people come to me. I like going to them. It is one of the most rewarding things and it’s also the best information because I’m not City Hall. It’s Tom, and they know me.

What’s one of your favorite places to hang out in town when you’re not performing official duties, although I imagine you’re kind of always on call?

I love hanging out downtown Santa Rosa. I love just hanging out downtown, walking from City Hall to a lot of my meetings. I meet at coffee shops downtown. Railroad Square is the same thing, a different vibe than downtown but very cool. And the newest part of Santa Rosa, Roseland. There are some awesome restaurants there.

I will also say Coffey Park. We’re rebuilding it because the actual park itself was destroyed in the fire. We just signed off on our first stage of the redevelopment of the park, so that’s exciting.

Now for the lightning round. We always ask one sort of regional question. So I guess I’ll ask you about wine. What’s your favorite variety?

I’m a big pinot fan. My wife and I used to belong to more wine clubs than I want to admit to. Just last Sunday, my son proposed to his fiance at one of the Wilson wineries in Dry Creek Valley, which is one of our favorite areas. They have awesome wines there. They have some awesome [zinfandels]. Zins are pretty darn good too.

First job?

Concord Transcript delivering papers.

Favorite subject in high school?

P.E. I’m kind of a sports nut.

Last great book you’ve read?

Well, I love Malcolm Gladwell’s books. This is horrible, but on the Kindle Reader, I don’t see the cover of the book, but there’s one that just came out and I’m in the middle of reading it. (Editor’s note: It’s Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.) I like pretty much all of his books. He’s a good storyteller.

First car?

Embarrassing, a 1971 Ford Pinto. It’s funny because I’m not really a car guy—obviously if you buy a Ford Pinto—but I just recently bought a Model 3 Tesla and I just love it. I’m going all-in trying to reduce our carbon footprint. I got it in March and I felt like a goober because I have a smile on my face when I’m driving, this is so cool!