The role of overt bias among planning commissioners, and potential planning commissioners, has recently been called into question by a form letter campaign by hotel developers and their surrogates.
The reason, in my opinion, is to intimidate the Planning Commission and council so the hotel developers can stack the Planning Commission favorably to outcomes they want. This is done under the wrong assumptions that, one, only the developers and their surrogates are unbiased, and two, a selection of supposedly unbiased commissioners will merely make objective determinations based on an application of neutral General Plan, Development Code and consultant-generated “facts”.
I submit that the above assumptions are wrong. Commissioners have values, staff has values, the public has values, the General Plan has values, consultant reports have values, and the Development Code has values. Existing and past commissioners have displayed values. All these values constitute what the hotel developers are calling biases.
Case in point: Chair Cribb, and Commissioner Coleman, and Commissioner Edwards before, have said in Planning Commission opinions, many times, words to the effect of “let the free market take care of it.” This represents an ideological philosophy that is not in the General Plan or Development Code. Free market ideology opinions is what hotel developers want on the Planning Commission because it dovetails with hotel developer’s ideological economic benefits arguments.
The real twist here is that free market ideology is then conflated by hotel developers et al to be objective, economic fact, as simply “economics” when in reality, there are multiple ways to parse economics. Growth and development can just as well be framed in a triple bottom line, sustainable, carrying capacity lens for example.
Therefore, given that there is a Machiavellian effort to shape the Planning Commission, and this struggle basically amounts to free market no limits versus sustainability and limits, I submit that commissioners Cribb and Coleman should recuse themselves from considering both hotel projects, and the Altimira Apts., because their free market, ideological biases telegraph what amounts to a predetermined vote. If hotel developers and their allies want to eliminate people who have sustainability values from the Planning Commission jury, then it is only fair that free market values also be recused and eliminated.
An exposé of such statements by the above-noted commissioners can be gleaned from past commission and joint study session video tape. Please be clear that my comments here have nothing to do with if anybody is a good guy, or how long they have lived in Sonoma, or what has been customary but is not an actual rule.
If the object of all the current maneuvering is to find commissioners who are neutral and have no stated values, and if the job is simply a robotic application of the rules, then there is no place for a priori free market opinions or ideological biases, and all who have displayed these opinions should be recused from any project that has built-in free market ideological economic arguments as part of its project narrative.
Alternately, the best the public could expect, in an ideal world, would be a balanced, transparent and honest discussion, between staff, commission, and public, on how and why luxury hotel, hospitality-tourism projects are spun and preferred to be interpreted one way or another, all using the General Plan and Development Code as primary sources.
In reality, there is no way to sidestep that people have values, opinions, and preferences. Why are we pretending this? Because of hotel developer obfuscation is why. What we are seeing with the Planning Commission, in my opinion, is hotel developers scared their interests might lose to a duly elected process, and pulling out all the stops to disrupt and throw the process in their favor.
The real charade here is that somehow it is possible to have a process to appoint neutral and objective people who have no values or prior opinions. And that these automatons will then interpret the General Plan and Development Code in an impartial way. Never mind that these core city planning blueprints are not simply “facts” but the reflections of principles and plans that are themselves shot through with values to start.
So, until such time as the city is able to find any actual neutral and objective people with no values or existing opinions to serve on the Planning Commission, I request that Chair Cribb and Commissioner Coleman recuse themselves from considering both hotel items and the Altimira Apts. item.
The only real reason the city has arrived at this place is the failure of the council, over the years, to address the tensions between residents and tourism in a straightforward way. In the larger picture, the loss of “the vital center” has caught up with Sonoma. The city has gradually become polarized around hospitality tourism. It is plain to see councils in the past have come out on the free market side of this argument, and now when there are actually some council members who want to address this resident/ tourism tension, what we get is obfuscation, pushback, and a Planning Commission power struggle, and the furtherance of not dealing with the core issues facing the town.
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