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Sonoma’s taxpayers are not children

Posted on August 18, 2017 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Political office often breeds paternalism, an inclination to protect the public from disturbing information. Though seemingly well-intentioned, paternalism arises from distrust of citizens, the attitude that people are not mature or well-informed enough to handle the truth.

Public office exposes elected officials to the underbelly of a community, the unpleasant and sometimes dark truths hidden in the shadows of bureaucracy that inevitably come to light. Just as individual psyches contain secrets and shame, so too does government, which, after all, is made up of fallible individuals.

Some information revealed to office holders is kept under wraps for good reason; matters subject to litigation, contract or property negotiations, and personnel complaints all appropriately deserve the protection of confidentiality until such matters are resolved. The public’s right to know is not infinite and the law provides a framework for what can be kept confidential.

Matters of government outside those given legal protection from disclosure, however, belong in the public sphere, and when government paternalism hides or disguises information that citizens deserve to know about, it violates the public’s trust. Though such revelations may be embarrassing, worrisome, financially threatening or unpleasant, voters are adults and must be treated that way.

Once in political office it’s easy to slide into paternalism. The combination of “inside information,” personal relationships and wanting to please the public naturally incline government and elected officials to put on the best face possible for the public, no matter the subject or disclosure. This is part human nature and part self-protection; as parents we spend many years protecting our children from things that might upset them and that we feel they shouldn’t know, and avoiding personal blame and criticism often inclines us to shade the truth. In personal relationships and child-rearing, this is tolerable, but in governance, it is not.

Paternalism inclines government to disguise or bury facts so as not to upset voters and members of the community. It’s true that having the confidence of voters is central to governance, but it should be earned through honesty, full disclosure and evidence of trust in the citizens. Though paternalism may appear to be based on the well-meaning inclination to protect the community, in the end it erodes confidence in government and those we elect and hire to run it. The truth almost always emerges, and today information is more difficult to hide than ever.

The best possible approach in governance is openness and full disclosure. This means ensuring that information, reports, financials, and transactions are publicly available easily and without limitation unless protected by law. It also means that when the mistakes of government are discovered, either by the public or by government itself, the proper response is to openly admit them, find out how they happened, and correct them. Only this approach preserves the public’s trust, no matter how unseemly or unpleasant the information. Sonoma’s water fund fiasco is a case in point.

Much about holding public office in a small town is pleasant; mingling with friends and neighbors combines easily with public duties without friction or conflict, but such pleasantries are not the whole story. Public office holders get to “look behind the curtain” and often learn about things kept from the public. Paternalistic inclinations to hide information from the public are from a misplaced sense of duty, however, and always a mistake.



2 thoughts on “Sonoma’s taxpayers are not children

  1. The behaviors we have seen to date on this matter go far beyond paternalism and well into behaviors attributed to abusive personalities and just plain illegal acts. When I first raised these concerns regarding the millions of dollars collected from water bills (that were illegally used for non-water activity without voter consent) to staff and council the initial reactions from staff and council were denial, disbelief, and shock (at that time only found $3.5 million was viewable, since then nearly $6 million has been revealed). In retrospect, then came the initial patterns attributable to abusive behavior; a direct denial letter from city staff, then came a letter from the former Director of Public Works justifying the malfeasance. When I challenged the denial letter on technical merits the former Public Works Director contacted my employer asking them to “do something about him”. Then came the gaslighting behavior; questioning my motives & my qualifications trying to escape the scrutiny by stating “those laws did not apply to the City” and that “merely a citizen could not possibly understand”, and “it’s very complicated”. Then came the minimization and ex-post facto justification, with statements from the City that “it may be found that the transferred amounts were correct just wrongly named”. Now we see our elected officials complicit and colluding to minimize and cover-up what was done and to protect the governmental organization, meeting illegally behind closed doors discussing and deciding what should be done.
    The facts are:
    1. The City Council approved illegal water rates on the advice of paid consultants, City staff, and the City Attorney in 2014.
    2. The City’s Audited Financial Statements attempt cover-up approximately $3,500,000 illegally collected water money transferred to the General Fund with the statement “Transfers from the water fund are for water projects and related activities”. This money was then used for other government activities without 2/3 voter consent as required by the California Constitution.
    3. The City of Sonoma & City Council repeatedly misrepresented the City’s unrestricted cash position to recertify to its debtholders and bondholders that it was in compliance with their covenants. Without the water money transferred to the General Fund, the City was not in compliance with its debt & bond covenants in 2014 & 2015.
    4. The City has not had its financial statements audited since the fiscal year ended June 30, 2015. Through Public Record Requests it has been revealed that approximately an additional $2,500,000 has been illegally transferred from the water fund since June 30, 2015 through June 30, 2017 and used for government activities without 2/3 voter consent as required by the California Constitution.
    5. The initial Budget for the City attempted to justify future rate hikes by showing huge deficits in the water fund under the guise of conservation, when in fact the drought restrictions ended last summer and the City’s own data shows water per capita consumption up 75% in 2017. This was quickly changed after challenged and now reflects a more realistic, yet prudent, forecast.

    We can debate motive or intent, but the facts are not debatable items. It takes a little bit to digest, you have to work to verify but all of the information above is in the minutes of public meetings (except for the decisions made in closed sessions), public documents and email chains or texts of public officials that anyone can requests.

    Frankly, we can burn the City down, see it bankrupt, taken over in a state receivership and see people complicit in some of these acts held personally liable, lose licenses and ability to hold office- maybe even go to jail. I have struggled personally to keep that parade of horrors from happening as I know that road means millions in lawyers fees paid by us taxpayers and incredible turmoil in our community. I still believe the best solution is one which includes the Citizens and our elected leaders openly & collectively deciding how to repair the trust that is lost and that makes the ratepayers & taxpayers in Sonoma whole. I strongly encourage you to contact the council, don’t let them dissuade you with a paternal speech or abusive behavior tactics and insist this get fixed 100%.

    Chris Petlock, MBA
    City of Sonoma Taxpayers’ Association

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