Debbie Ruddock has long been an important figure in Half Moon Bay’s city government. That isn’t changing anytime soon. Last week, Ruddock officially began her fifth term as mayor after receiving unanimous approval from her fellow City Council members.
Ruddock, who served as vice mayor in 2021, replaced Robert Brownstone and named Deborah Penrose to be vice mayor. Ruddock moved to the Coastside in 1989 and first joined the Half Moon Bay City Council in 1991. She has served as mayor in 1995, 1996, 2001 and 2017. She stepped away from the council for 12 years from 2003 to 2015.
After accepting the position on Dec. 21, Ruddock, who retired last month after 21 years at the California State Coastal Conservancy, immediately highlighted the need to address mental health. She announced she would kick off her term by joining 10 other incoming mayors to start the San Mateo County Mayors Mental Health Initiative, a program that aims to promote awareness of mental health, particularly in younger people, and increase countywide resources. Ruddock cited a variety of studies indicating that the pandemic has caused an increase in mental health issues across all genders, ages, races and incomes.
“We’re not a mental health service agency, but I think we can do things to connect people to services, understand what those services are, and continue networking with a variety of groups who are besieged with issues,” she said.
The Review asked Ruddock about the coming year and what she’d learned from her past experience on the council. This interview with staff writer August Howell has been edited for length and clarity.
-What are your top priorities as mayor this year?
We have some big categories of general priorities that I don’t think should change much. Everything we’re doing remains a priority. We want to get an affordable housing project, we want to complete our Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. I don’t envision abrupt changes to our list of priorities, with a couple of exceptions.
I think we need to restart efforts on recycled water. We’ve had a rainy winter so far, but there are long-term issues with water supply. Knowing what I know about climate change and modeling, for the Sierra Nevada mountains, the snowpack for the future draining into the Hetch Hetchy watershed will be problematic over time. I know restarting recycled water is important to the Coastside County Water District. We need to think more broadly, I think CCWD should be the lead, but we haven’t sat down to discuss how to move forward on that. But we have to start now and I think we should start this year.
Mental health is a priority for me this year. I think the city can draw attention to it and help hook up people to resources. But I’d like to develop partnerships with the school districts and others for some projects to address and be helpful for children and our youth. I’d like to come up with a couple of projects that engage youth during this time of COVID-19 and climate change. COVID-19 has affected children, I think, most directly, and potentially long term.
-How does COVID-19 impact the city’s priorities?
I think we’re heading into a rough few months around COVID-19 still, with ongoing economic impact. We have to be attentive to that and meet and confer with partners about where we’re headed and what’s needed. We still have to look at the menu of potential projects identified by the Coastside recovery initiative. The city is going to need to continue its partnerships with COVID-19 testing. I think the economy and health issues are preeminent, you have to take care of those first.
-You’ve been a part of Half Moon Bay city government for nearly 30 years. How has your approach to city government and perspective on its role changed over that time?
I started out my political career as a kind of rabble-rouser. I was a community activist. For several years, I was in a minority position as a council. My role then was to highlight that which was being ignored by the current council, which was the need for environmental protection, growth management and stewardship of our resources.
I probably pissed off a lot of people. If you asked Naomi Patridge or John Muller, they would say I came on as a disturber, and things needed disturbing. At this point, my work at the Coastal Conservancy cultivated the importance of collaboration and partnerships and negotiations, being less of an ideologue and more of a problem solver.
-What has your experience as mayor taught you about the position this time around?
It became clear when I was mayor the first time that to get things done you needed a majority vote. And some things are so important you need a 4-1 or a 5-0 vote. Sometimes you have to go to the voters. I think I’ve gotten better at mediating among council members and understanding where they’re coming from. It’s not even going for the majority, but really trying to build consensus, listening and identifying common interests as opposed to differences.
-What’s the most challenging part of the job?
I think the most challenging part is listening and really hearing what people are saying. You have to let go of your own preconceptions and get rid of the ego that can interfere with that. It’s about slowing down and creating lasting solutions. Some people want to rush, I believe in process, and process can slow you down, but it exists for a reason. It’s difficult and it takes experience. Some people don’t have the patience for that. I didn’t initially. Learning to play the long game and how to create and adhere to a good process, that’s tough.
Our job is not just to represent individual self-interests. We have to keep an eye out for the collective good. Sometimes the decisions we make don’t benefit the short-term individual interest. We’re stewards not just for people living now, but for people in the future. Look at the Local Coastal Land Use Plan. That will last for decades and shape the community for a long time.
-What’s the most rewarding part of the job?
For me, it’s working with people. I think working together to solve problems; that collaboration and partnership is rewarding. I’m not somebody working by myself in the corner. I like the collaboration and the good feeling that comes when we accomplish something together.