In the run-up to becoming Santa Cruz’s first at-large mayor, Fred Keeley resigned three teaching positions and pulled back from the nonprofit boards on which he served, all so he could put the whole of his attention on the position.
The 72-year-old says he hopes his leadership will guide how the City Council operates under the new six-district structure.
“I think not only how I comport myself and the way the council members comport themselves over the next four and eight years will hopefully set both policy and behavioral precedent for the city,” he says.
Keeley will be sworn in on Tuesday at 7pm, along with District 4 Councilman Scott Newsome and District 6 Councilwoman Renee Golder.
Keeley was elected to the position in November, having garnered just over 70% of the vote.
Once he takes the gavel, Keeley says he plans to call for a “reset” of an earlier conversation in which city leaders signaled support for an expansion plan that includes taller buildings in the downtown area.
“I think the city made a mistake in suggesting that there could be 17- to 20-story buildings in the new neighborhood downtown,” he says. “They simply wrong-footed that. I don’t think there’s any constituency in the City of Santa Cruz for 17- to 20-story buildings, anywhere, much less in the downtown.”
Instead, Keeley says he will look to restrict buildings to no taller than 12 stories, one story taller than the Palomar building. He would also call for a maximum of 1,600 new housing units, 20% of which would be affordable.
“That, I think, is much more in keeping with the values of the city electorate,” he says.
Keeley’s political career began in 1981—four years after he first arrived in Santa Cruz—when he worked as an aide to then Supervisor Joe Cucchiara. Three years later, he became chief of staff to Assemblyman Sam Farr, who went on to become a Congressman.
In 1988, Keeley was elected to the County Board of Supervisors, where he served two terms. He then moved up to the State Assembly in 1996, where he was best known for his environmental advocacy, authoring what were then the two biggest environmental protection bonds in U.S. history.
He served for a decade as Santa Cruz County Treasurer.
“I’ve been madly in love with Santa Cruz since 1977 when I moved to the community,” he says.
Keeley waves off health concerns after a temporary bout of Transient Global Amnesia (TGA) on Dec. 9 put him in the hospital overnight. People affected by TGA are temporarily unable to form new memories and become confused about where they are and how they got there, according to the Mayo Clinic. TGA resolves itself without treatment and has no lasting effects.
“I was good within 24 hours of that episode, and the doctors told me it’s not a precursor of anything else,” he says.
While an elected mayor is a first for the city, the new position carries no additional responsibilities outside those traditionally conferred, such as leading meetings and setting the agenda, he says.
“I will approach it the way I’ve approached every elected office that the voters have been kind enough to have me hold,” he says. “And that is to be very open and transparent and to work on those issues such as homelessness, housing, drought-proofing our water system and building a new and vital neighborhood south of Laurel in downtown Santa Cruz.”
Keeley taught graduate-level public administration at San Jose State University, in addition to government classes at CSU Monterey Bay and the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.
He has served on numerous boards, including Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and Housing Santa Cruz County.