Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is maintenance chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and an active member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley. As well, Fred has a KSVY radio show on Sunday nights at 8:PM, participates in the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition for immigration issues, and with the Sonoma Climate Coalition.


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The role of values in public policy making

Posted on November 22, 2017 by Fred Allebach

A staff report can easily take ten or more minutes. Appellants and applicants routinely get ten minutes to make a presentation. Public comments only get two or three minutes. Consider this essay to be a ten-minute report on the role of values in public policy making.

All issues play out the same way

In my civic career, I’ve seen that most issues break down along the same stereotyped patterns of dispute. Predictable formulas and areas of contention unfold every time. An issue is supposed to be decided on a narrow set of official merits. These merits are usually defined by staff, as part of an official set of legal, procedural parameters. However, issues are also opportunities for citizens to express and debate their values. To community actors, values represent the essential merits of any issue, yet an analysis of such values is never in the staff report.

Since values are such critical markers of civic issues, and values determine how the merits are seen, it is worthwhile to examine what values are and where they come from. Values here can be used interchangeably with beliefs and morals.

Values and culture

Values are a critical part of human culture. The capacity for people to have values is universal.

Values are imprinted into us in an enculturation process. Values are deep-operating, at levels difficult but not impossible to question and shine a light on.

Paradigms and worldviews

A constellation of values makes up a cultural pattern, worldview, or paradigm. These are cultural operating programs.

Values trouble comes up when different group’s values clash. People identify with values as absolutes, even though it is easy enough to see that cross-cultural values are relative. People have to then either co-exist with the tension of different values, or fight to the end so that one set of values prevails over another.

Every human culture has different values systems, but they are about the same exact sorts of human, social things. What are these things? Values tell us what is good and bad, how the world works, what our proper place in the world is.

Evolutionary context of morals

As a highly-evolved primate social species, we inherit from our group-living ancestors, a set of critical community-based behaviors that has risen to a conscious level in the form of culture.

A core aspect of our social behavior is manifested in values, or morals. Morals play out on five different levels that guide group behavior. These five levels have to do with reckoning harm, fairness, loyalty, purity, and respect for authority. This is the behavioral matrix within which cultural values operate.

Values of liberals and conservatives, for example

Some have seen the moral difference between liberals and conservatives (values ideology) as that liberals are weighted heavily to harm and fairness considerations, while conservatives balance out all five behavioral capacities more evenly. Religions reflect different moral capacity combinations as well. With morals and values, people are arguing about the same exact stuff, just what behavioral flavor combination is best.

The need to unmask values in policy debates

Cultural values and morals frequently conflict, and values are hard for people to clearly articulate because they frequently can’t get enough separation to get a good look at them. Why is it that we hew to one set of values and not another? Is it because some are purportedly truer than others? If so, how would we ever know and measure the merits of that? On a scale of harm?

People don’t know why you were imprinted with certain values around the kitchen table, they just were. Therefore, for all of the above reasons and more, I see the unmasking of cultural values and morals as the key to being able to understand others and to potentially solve contentious public policy issues.

In order to do this, actors have to be willing to have a good look at themselves, not just point fingers at others. Actors have to be willing to work together. My effort here is a hope that by unmasking values we may arrive at a larger common understanding, to maybe move from a zero-sum to a win-win context.

Policy making ground rules

In counseling, actors are urged to listen, and to make “I statements” that lay out why they feel the way they do. If such listening and right communication works, the actors end up having compassion for each other and they solidify their relationships, get along, respect each other and develop trust. This type of simple program is what public policy actors need to do in order to lay their values and interests clearly on the table.

A primary, prior condition here: actors have to want to get along and work things out. Wanting to honor cultural differences is a prerequisite. This is a tall order. If there is no desire to understand the other and be a reliable partner, then there’s no motivation and no chance to bridge any gaps. A certain sense of good will and open-mindedness has to be brought to the table, at least a little bit.

Public hearings as values theater

Public debate of values at various hearings makes for great theater, but also for difficulty in determining just what the actual, objective merits of a case or project are. The technical merits of public issues, as seen in staff reports, don’t ever contain judgements or analyses on values, or anything about who is a great guy or not. Yet most of public comment revolves around subjective values of various kinds. Objective, quantifiable merits therefore, always get taken along for a sleigh ride with subjective, unquantifiable merits (values).

Public debate over projects usually amounts to a zero-sum game contest where the object is to use the process in place to win and impose one set of values over another. The objective merits don’t matter, as they are just a proxy for subjective value judgments. Majority rule is winner take all. This sets up the same cycles of revenge that have characterized human history since the get go. Something is up with all of this that is worth examining. Can we be reasonable enough to work things out? Can society be a reflection of multiple sets of values or only one? Are we smart and willing enough to work this out?

In many ways the disputation of local, regional and national civic issues, is really about values. I’ve already addressed where values and morals come from (our primate group-living ancestry), but why do we have the ones we do? Why do I learn one thing around the kitchen table and you another? To paraphrase William Blake, why do we both read the Bible day and night, while you read black and I read white?

The roots of cultural flavors

Values differences generally have to do with historical trajectories, with class, gender and racial differences, with where you live, city or country, level of education, with the role of religion and ideology in family life.

In important ways, values reflect whether a group has had power and been in control or has been subjugated in some way. Many higher values, that come from self-actualization, are contingent on economic well-being.

Values can be also be seen on a cultural developmental scale, from more traditional to more modern. Values traditionalists and values modernists are both equally capable however, of being rigid and intransigent. Being modern is not somehow better, at least in terms of being able to get along and see outside your own values bubble.

We have to own it

Modern or traditional, whoever we are, whatever culture we are imprinted into, the ground for values, morals, and beliefs is socially constructed. This is to say, we as humans are the ones who make and generate the conditions from which values arise. Values are content, and we can change that content and how we see it. If culture and society is a fabric, we make the loom. We are self-aware; if we have problems with values conflict, it is on us to figure these things out.

Local examples of values conflict

Let’s look at a few recent cases of zero-sum game public values disputes, and see what the values at stake are. Maybe by looking at things this way, the difference between the map and the territory can be opened up, and the underlying values more clearly seen and understood. I may not have everything exactly right here, but the point is to have a look and think about the roots of our values, interests, and opinions. If we can get to that level, bubbles can maybe be popped and the game could be changed for the good.

Knowing someone’s values clearly, understanding and honoring their considerations, is at a different level than simply postulating that differences make people wrong and bad. A values inventory may bring to light just what the issues are at deeper levels and allow us as community actors to get a bit of a wider view.

Glosses on proper Sonoma architectural design

The Planning Commission delved into the issue of what type of look is best for the Altamira Family Apartments affordable housing project on Broadway. One camp feels there is a unified Sonoma design style and the Altamira look should reflect that. The other camp feels that Sonoma architecture is an amalgam of different period styles, and therefore Sonoma style rests in an evolutionary context, and a more modern look today is proper.

The values at stake here have to do with Sonoma’s essence as a historic town. What represents the fundamental character, or imprint of Sonoma architecture? Is town character only a visual aspect?

Coastal Commission sea wall dispute

At a recent Coastal Commission hearing, the question of whether or not to further armor a Pacifica sea wall stood as a proxy issue for environmental and shoreline health vs. golfers and adjacent property owner’s interests. The city had illegally armored the berm in previous years. As usual, each side threw in everything but the kitchen sink as possible findings evidence. The different findings and merits all sought to back up the underlying values judgements underneath.

On one side was municipal protection of a historic golf course that had endangered red-legged frogs in an artificial pond. If the sea wall was breached, a whole local development would be compromised, and California Trail recreational access along the sea wall trail would be lost. On the other side were surfers and ecologists arguing that sea walls ruin beach habitat and marine recreational opportunities. The values here? Private property vs. nature, (man vs. nature) city tax base vs. free recreation. Is golf good or bad? Who has the right to manage nature that effects everybody, and why?

Hunt club dispute

The county Board of Zoning Adjustments had a recent hearing over whether to permit an expansion of the Wing and Barrel Hunt Club near Sears Point. The dispute here was between an alliance of environmentalists and an adjacent farmer vs. Kenwood Investments wealthy investors and a cohort of Baylands and local hunters and farmers.

The actual land use decision was over the hunt club expansion, that had certain technical merits but much of the dispute centered on potential uses of the club as an elite event center. Was this a rural hunt club or a Trojan Horse elite event center? The values at stake here pitted a strange alliance of wealthy liberal investors and rural-oriented folks, who advocated property rights, “tradition”, “heritage”, and “land stewardship” values, against an environmental cohort that also values land stewardship and natural heritage, just in different ways. This was a rural-urban values dispute over the role of man in nature in the Baylands that then also collapsed into mutual value judgements as to who was the interfering and meddling elite party? Are the elites the East Side, city-center environmentalists, or the wealthy 1% Kenwood Investments club members?

Were the liberal investors playing out the hunters on traditional values issues? Were elite east siders imposing their will on legitimate traditional land uses? The hearing had overtones of current national political issues.

At the end of the day, none of these values issues were in the staff report as findings for the merits of the project, but they were prime for public comment. It was as if values were the core issue, and the project just a proxy to bring out a host of simmering national and county tensions over the proper role of man in nature and society. Do property rights trump environmental stewardship of common pool resources and open spaces? What is land stewardship, for who, and why?

Wine-hospitality-tourism disputes

Sonoma County has had a host of contentious issues over wine hospitality tourism. These include disputes over vacation rentals, rural event centers, wine tasting facilities, and hotels in the historic Sonoma Plaza area. These issues bring out a further iteration of values differences that play out in public policy decisions. Business, labor, government planning, mitigation and regulation, property-owning residents, environment; all these interests with their associated values step into the fray.

Some of the values herein revolve around the meaning of sustainability, equity, freedom, growth, and success. Given the science on climate change and a demonstrable current period of extreme socio-economic inequity, how do business-as-usual growth and consumption plans jive with actual sustainability? Who is running the show here? Do short-term planning horizons trump long term? Why? Is economy primary over society and environment or does society determine the flavor of the economy and how the environment is managed?

Event center disputes

Event centers are another rural-urban land use dispute that churns up values conflicts.  At the end of the day, all county and city residents are “stakeholders”, with a values-based stake in community issues. Including stakeholders means dealing with their values.

For event centers, there are current rules and regulations about ag, open space, and a value to preserving county ag traditions. Event centers however, blur the lines between commercial zoning and rural ag zoning. This blurring is being forced by changes in the wine industry where a central, multi-tasting room model has out-competed the rural winery model. Event center proprietors claim economic necessity. What are the values at stake? Economic necessity, consumer growth vs. conservation and carrying capacity, preservation of open space, ecosystem services, excessive greenhouse gas footprint? Priority of economy over society?

Like many issues, inertial changes force society to adapt: smart phones, social media, things come in and take over and society has to adjust. The ascendance of the tourism combine has forced changes that now have to be reckoned with. Sprawl was previously reckoned with UGBs, but now sprawl in a different form appears to be back with event center tensions.

The role of philanthropy and non-profits in public policy

In Sonoma Valley, there is a lot of wealth and a system of non-profits has evolved to channel that wealth into addressing social and economic issues that government has progressively been unable to handle. This system of relationships might be termed the non-profit industrial complex.

The non-profit industrial complex is in tension with grassroots actors as to the proper nature of societal change. All the actors have good values that they are trying to enact. If the values are all demonstrably good, why the divide?

Grassroots analysis of the issues sees a non-profit complicity with an exploitive power structure that does not allow for any real structural changes to happen; only crumbs get trickled down, not needed changes like higher wages and reasonable rents. Non-profits and philanthropy justify their work as a necessary, compassionate organizational/ agency-level responses to structural problems.

Hard judgements get made by all parties here and the end result is non-communication and no respect, betwen people who really need to listen. The management of the school system is one flashpoint in this tension. The grassroots think the insiders are corrupt and the insiders think the grassroots are too angry and need to get along better. Values at stake here are about the pace and nature of perceived necessary socio-economic change, and about who should be included and in charge.

Power and control after all

Values in the end boil down to justifying interests and who stands to gain what and why. Values as they play into ideology, are a cultural justification for the control of natural resources and the control of other men.

If people can’t communicate, attempt to understand, and reach any comity about who’s in charge, and have their interests fairly represented, the only other choice is to fight to the death in zero-sum dominance games. This baboon, Machiavelli road is one of bludgeoning power and control. This is default human behavior and very hard to buck. People who have power very seldom voluntarily give it up. Possibly human intelligence can transcend this? Oh my, hope springs eternal!

Take the Nelson Mandela road?

Fairly distributed power and control can be gained by softer means. This might be called the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela road of non-violent methods of societal change. A consensus process of honoring differences, rather than winner take all, could lead to a feeling of win-win.

An example, if in a relationship you can allow your partner leeway for idiosyncrasies and preferences, yet still honor and respect them, why can’t we do this among groups of people too?

The ascendance of women in power will possibly represent a new stage in human evolution. For this, we’ll need powerful women who are not trying to act like men in aggressive, dominance kind of ways. In this softer way, the role of including each person and group, to open up broader shared values horizons, is important. Inclusion, not exclusion.


I may not have described all these values issues just right, to everyone’s satisfaction, but that’s the point. Different takes are at stake here. By at least attempting to lay values cards on the table, actors can make a bid to get along. A bid is a first step to relationship building, to make trust that could possibly bridge current values gaps and result in a more authentic and democratic public policy making process.

How to unmask the rigid, zero-sum game framing of values to get to a cooperative place where the actual, values merits of issues can be discussed rationally. Can win-win outcomes be negotiated? That’s up to us, if we have that desire. If not, and if powerful interests do not accede to a democratic will, then the fight is on, as it always has been.

The most logical step, to developing a get-along style, is to widen the aperture of the in-group to include all people, and extend an inclusive respect to all. At the level of the whole earth, we can see all as one. From there we can begin to negotiate a future where different values can co-exist,  and from there, other more serious common problems can be tackled. It’s our choice, to honor and respect or to fight to the bitter end. United we stand, divided we fall. If we really are all in this together, let’s act like it and work these values issues out by being honest about our beliefs and communicating that so we appreciate what is really at stake in our public policy decisions.






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