He grew up resenting the concrete, cold to the touch and cold to the soul, that walled in his grandmother at a mental health hospital.
So here was Don Horsley, seven decades removed from that experience, speaking at the groundbreaking of a $155 million campus for some of San Mateo County’s most vulnerable mentally ill residents.
“I remember going to visit her at Napa State Hospital. And Napa State Hospital was not a lot different than this,” Horsley said, “this” being the Cordilleras Mental Health Center that will be bulldozed once the new campus is complete.
“It was all concrete and slamming doors. Because of that, being a little boy, seeing a state hospital and women who are essentially locked up in a concrete monstrosity, I guess touched something inside me such that I was always interested in doing better for people who have mental health issues.”
“Doing better for people” is a theme that sounds through the years of Don Horsley, a former teacher, police officer and the elected San Mateo County sheriff.
Now, as Horsley’s third and final term on the Board of Supervisors representing District 3 comes to a close, here’s a look at seven ways Horsley has impacted San Mateo County.
1. A New Playbook for Mental Health
In San Mateo County’s four largest cities – San Mateo, Daly City, South San Francisco and Daly City – a mental health clinician partners with police to respond to individuals undergoing a behavioral health crisis. It’s showing promising results.
In Half Moon Bay, the city contracts with a local nonprofit, El Centro de Libertad, to respond to mental health-related emergency calls traditionally answered by fire, ambulance or law enforcement, from Devil’s Slide to southern Half Moon Bay. The Crisis Assistance Response & Evaluation Team, or CARES, launched in March 2022.
And among the oaks and woodlands in the hills above Redwood City, a new era in treating the county’s most vulnerable residents is taking shape. The 121-bed Cordilleras mental health campus will replace a decades-old drab concrete building, a site that prompted Horsley to recall visiting his grandmother in a similar facility.
Taken together, these programs (which receive County funding and support) and the $155 million project to build a new mental health campus represent a cultural shift in addressing mental health — a shift championed by Horsley.
2. Parks Rebirth
On a recent morning, the sun broke through the coastal fog to reveal a view that never grows old: the waves of the Pacific Ocean pounding a sandy beach. This area where Tunitas Creek empties into the Pacific will soon become a new park – and the first beach park managed by San Mateo County Parks. A groundbreaking this month followed an extensive financing and planning process with the Peninsula Open Space Trust, Coastal Conservancy and the community.
Creating services for future Tunitas visitors – restrooms, accessible trails, parking – is the latest in a string of County investments in parks and open spaces.
Just a decade ago, coming out of the Great Recession, the County faced such a budget shortfall that County Parks folded as a stand-along department and became a division of the Public Works Department. Now County Parks, with an infusion of funding from the local Measure K half-cent sales tax, is on its own and back in a big way.
“Supervisor Horsley was integral to the resurgence of San Mateo County Parks,” said Walter Moore, president of Peninsula Open Space Trust. “He not only understood the importance of these parks to county residents, but also how to rally the resources to take on legacy projects such as Tunitas Creek Beach. His drive to do so was based on his own strongly held personal belief that these lands need to be protected and available to all.”
“Don has always understood and valued the synergy between protecting open space and natural habitats with preserving and sustaining agricultural lands on the Coastside,” said Ana Ruiz, general manager of the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.
“His sponsorship secured Measure K funding to help Midpen acquire Cloverdale Ranch near Pescadero, which will become our 27th open space preserve, as a tangible, lasting example of his legacy in serving the Coastside community.”
3. Housing for the Most Vulnerable
As Board president in 2022, Horsley has led what the Los Angeles Times called “a bold pledge” – to end homelessness by the end of the year.
While the County has not declared an end to homelessness, significant progress is visible on a number of fronts:
- Nearing completion of the County’s first Navigation Center, which will provide 240 safe temporary living spaces for individuals and couples along with intensive support services. These services will be designed to help clients find and maintain stable housing.
- Awarding $2.4 million in grants to launch or expand innovative initiatives to end homelessness.
- Purchasing five former motels/hotels for conversion into permanent or temporary housing for individuals who are unsheltered or at serious risk of becoming unsheltered.
- Investing a total of $254 million in Measure K funds to create and renovate affordable housing countywide.
“When we asked voters to approve Measure K in 2016, we specifically called out the need to provide affordable homes. We are making good on that pledge,” Horsley said.
“If we are going to thrive as a region and thrive as a community that cares, we absolutely must ensure that working families and the most vulnerable among us have safe, clean and affordable housing,” he said. “We cannot have a community of haves and have nots. That is not sustainable and it is not morally defensible.”
4. Curbing Gun Violence
With mass shootings and other forms of gun violence rocking the United States, Horsley has championed an initiative to remove guns from the hands of felons, stalkers and other people prohibited from possessing firearms.
Julia Weber, implementation director and domestic violence expert at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, called the County’s approach “cutting edge.”
The Board of Supervisors pledged $2 million toward the program over two years from the Measure K half-cent sales tax.
In recent years, the Board has launched several gun-safety measures, including:
- A Safe Storage ordinance, which applies to firearms owners in unincorporated areas
- A Gun Dealer ordinance, which requires firearms dealers in unincorporated areas to acquire a locally issued license, among other measures
- Providing financial support for gun buy-back events.
“Fewer guns means fewer chances for guns falling into the wrong hands,” Horsley said. “You can keep your family safer if you get rid of unwanted firearms. It’s tragic but over half of all suicides occur with the use of a firearm.”
5. Fire Safety and Emergency Preparedness
Upgrading the County’s emergency planning and response capabilities is among the greatest accomplishments of the past decade.
After voters passed a local half-cent sales tax in 2012 with support from Horsley, one of the Board’s first actions was to target funding for fire safety projects and emergency preparedness.
This has led to the County:
Purchasing six fire engines, three wildland engines and a ladder truck, all in service and based for emergency response in Pescadero, Skylonda, the San Mateo Highlands and other areas with elevated risks of fire; the new vehicles replace older engines or bolster response capabilities.
Replacing the Depression-era Fire Station 58 near the intersection of Skyline Boulevard and Woodside Road with a new $8 million station with modern living quarters, training rooms and other facilities.
Building a two-story Regional Operations Center on the County Center campus in downtown Redwood City that serves as the hub for countywide emergency response and communications. Opening in fall 2019, the ROC, as it’s called, quickly served as the center for daily news briefings and coordinating the countywide response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ROC serves as the daily offices for the County’s 9-1-1 Public Safety Dispatch and Department of Emergency Management.
Funding projects from Daly City to Pescadero that reduce the threat of wildfire by reducing fuel loads; in many cases that work also involves improving escape routes.
6. Frank Discussions on Race
As Board of Supervisors president in 2022, Horsley has invited people of color to share their experiences at monthly Board meetings, experiences intended to incorporate the history and stories of the nearly two-thirds of residents who are non-white.
Residents spoke to the history of their communities and their experiences as people of color in San Mateo County. This included the history of Filipino immigration, the cultural erasure of Pacific Islanders in the dominant culture, the power of the nationally recognized Nairobi Movement of East Palo, the racism experienced by Black residents and fears of law enforcement. Stories also told of their experiences as both people of color with disabilities or as LGBTQ+ people of color, and much more. The many intersections of the non-white majority in our county are vast.
His interest in ensuring these experiences and history were consistently represented at Board meetings began during his previous term as Board president in 2017, when he elevated the history and experiences of Black residents and community members, ensuring Black history was not contained to one month in the year.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with Supervisor Horsley over the last year to elevate the experiences and history of people of color in San Mateo County," said Shireen Malekafzali, the County's chief equity officer.
"He recognized that Board meetings were an opportunity to educate and shift the narrative of a county that can often be segregated in its communities without clear touch points into the experiences of other cultures and communities. San Mateo County has been majority people of color since 2000, and yet the narrative has been slow to incorporate these experiences," Malekafzali said. "I’ve seen how Supervisor Horsley’s leadership on this issue has been from the heart. He is personally moved by the challenges people of color continue to face in a county he feels responsible for. His leadership will be missed.”
7. Working for Farmworkers
San Mateo County has some of the highest paying technology jobs in the nation. It’s also home to about 1,700 individuals who work on the county's farms and nurseries. Nearly all are immigrants, many with families, who earn minimum wage or a little more in jobs most of the domestic labor force does not want.
The County, under Horsley's leadership, has embarked on numerous initiatives to help those who put food on our tables. These include spearheading a program to assist agricultural operators and landowners in creating new housing that is both safe and affordable for farmworkers. And the County recently launched the Farmworker Advisory Commission, which hosts meetings in Spanish and is believed to be the first of its kind in California.
“I think it’s our duty to support agriculture and to make sure our farm laborers have decent living standards, something that we can be proud of,” Horsley said. “We want to preserve ag, and first of all you need to have the people willing to work in ag and you need to provide them with the services they deserve."