Analysis of Joe Aaron webpage titled Support for Commissioners.
The top of the webpage left has the seal of the state of California, purpose unknown but it looks good and gives the appearance of gravity. Top page right has the scales of justice. This is an interesting symbol to use in the context of this webpage because typically justice is construed as an effort to balance the scales and relieve the outsize influence of the rich and powerful. It is not typical that the rich and powerful cast themselves as victims. But as we will see this is part of the Aaron cohort narrative constructed here.
In human history since the advent of civilization and class society, the overwhelming evidence shows that the many have been dominated and exploited by the few. Justice is a meme that finds favor with the little guy, not the big guys. Justice seeks to address the imbalance between historic Wall Streets and Main Streets.
The rule of law
Aaron later mentions “the rule of law”, that the rule of law needs to be upheld. I think what he really means is that the law is fine and good as long as his cohort’s interests are being satisfied. The Aaron-Jasper et al fallacy here is that city codes can only be “objectively” interpreted one way. According to this notion, Planning Commissioners should basically be robots that neutrally divine the meanings of General Plan items, items that are actually shot through with all the multiple values of the community. If values are not in the General Plan, then let’s see what the process of making a new General Plan turns out to be. I wonder if the Aaron-Jasper et al cohort will attend those meetings and attempt to shape the next General Plan? Or are their lawyers already studying it?
As per the “rule of law”, any student of history knows that laws only enshrine the values of the winners who have taken power to create them. Winners always tend to turn corrupt, as per Lord Acton, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The American Revolution was a merchant’s revolution, to take power from an arbitrary, Divine Rule aristocracy. American values, and the laws they represent, have thick internal contradictions, as blacks, women, non-Western European immigrants, and white men without property were all excluded at the start.
What has happened in America is that the merchant class has morphed back into a new form of aristocracy. This is now officially sanctioned with Trump and the Republicans: plutocracy and kleptocracy rule. So, when we are talking about justice in America, about how the rule of law plays into that, we are talking about how to wrestle power from propertied, 1% white men, the real vocal minority.
Power struggle is at the core
The webpage text notes a “citizen-led democracy” that challenged “the politicizing of the Planning Commission.” The text also notes which council members voted to supposedly depoliticize the Planning Commission, Cook, Edwards and Agrimonti.
What we see here is actually a political power struggle to blow the whole commission selection process up and instate commissioners who are friendlier to wealthy business interests, this under the guise and pretense of objectivity and neutral interpretation of the rules. This is what prompted the whole commission shake up process.
It is my contention that this power struggle basically boils down to sustainability, triple bottom line indicator-based planning versus free market, no limits ideology. This means choosing survival by transcending traditional power divides, survival by long-term planning, or death by inertia of business as usual.
Democracy and the prerogatives of power
In the past, the mayor had the privilege of appointing commissioners, and this seemed to be OK. Everyone knew and knows, that mayors (and politicians) are politically biased, and so mayoral appointments would likely reflect that bias. So, Hundley and Harrington sought to exercise the prerogatives of elected power and appoint commissioners they felt reflected their general sustainability values and hopes for the community.
The no limits, free market cohort did not like this, and pushed back hard. As you can see from this Joe Aaron webpage, which is the tip of the iceberg of the pushback, Hundley and Harrington have been singled out, and attacked with low-ball harassment tactics and techniques.
This appeared to set Hundley and Harrington off from the other three council members. However, the fact is that each council member cannot be reduced to a simple formula or purity test. Council members can however, become proxies and symbols for citizens as they attempt to construct narratives about the ebb and flow of power in town. There may be generalities that can be seen with council members, but they also have, in many cases, highly nuanced takes on things. The outcome of the hillside hearing battle is not certain. If it was, each side would not be lobbying so hard.
A vocal minority
Now, returning to an analysis of narratives, this Joe Aaron webpage presents a couple of interesting points. One is that those who represent actual Main Street values are a “vocal minority” and two, that the $400 appeal fee is too low.
This “vocal minority” meme has been used by other rich and powerful development interests here in the valley, and plays right into the rich-guys-as-victims narrative. Why would anybody who knows anything about real Main Street values buy into such a narrative? Rich guys are victims?! In fact, a hearing on a related issue in this overall war shows that this same free market cohort “citizen led democracy” was actually Astroturf mercenary help, who all had some sort of financial or patronage stake to the Wall Street players.
You can also see the new Planning Commissioner Carol Jansen here testifying for the Wall Street group. Presumably with all of Aaron et al’s accusations of bias, he and his group will make sure that Ms. Jansen will be entirely free of any whiff of political maneuvering.
To try and paint the actual majority of citizens as a minority is an audacious framing chess move. These guys are anything if not bold. This is Nixonian “silent majority” stuff, a term Mr. Jasper has actually used to try and conjure up an invisible support of the citizenry.
Is Somoma actually becoming Carmel?
It could be true that Sonoma has now become a town where values are tipping more to the rich’s interests. In spite of the Bay Area as a whole being a region that is as liberal as the US gets, where one might presume that social justice values would be strongly egalitarian, Sonoma and Bay Area liberalism may have sold its soul to money and wealth and lost its solid connection to Main Street.
Bay Area liberals are great on environmental stuff, but come up short on the tremendous income inequality, housing segregation, and obscene housing costs. Maybe Jasper and Aaron et al are right, and in a sense, they are representing the gradual Carmel-ification of Sonoma. They may be the vanguard of the bourgeoisie. If so, this is not just a hillside battle or a Planning Commission battle, but a fundamental power shift in town, a process that may be seen now as a two-pronged attack on the remnants of Main Street liberalism in Sonoma, more on this below.
$400 is cheap or a lot?
As for the $400 appeal fee, here is another class, justice, and democracy issue being painted to make the rich out as victims. What is the hidden message here, that only the rich should be able to appeal, and that since the rich spent so much money already they should just get what they want with no public oversight? This is Trumpian plutocratic values coming to the fore and seeking normalization. Yes, the local Wall Street cohort here is in the Trump quarter; it’s true.
It is a great out of touch with Main Street tip of the hand here, to assume that $400 is not a lot of money for an appeal. Quote from Mr Aaron here: “the fact that an appeal of a Planning Commission decision can be filed for only $400. That’s right – the City Planning staff can spend hundreds of hours analyzing a project, the Planning Commission can spend months or even years working on a project, the City attorney, the fire marshal, and City engineer can invest countless hours, and for $400 the entire effort can be undermined by a few loud voices, whether a vocal minority, NIMBYs, or puppets of a political power play.”
This seems to say that the pubic process should start and end with money. The more you have the more right you are. With “the rule of law”, the local Wall Street cohort can bring any number of lawsuits and legal salvos because of their wealth, but if actual justice is done, with an affordable appeal fee, that’s unfair? C’mon! They city council, agreed the appeal fee was prohibitive and that it could be waived or reduced for people of lower economic means. This might be a good campaign plank for a local city council Wall Street candidate: raise the appeal fee to $2000! That will keep those uppity poor people in check!
Difference between “taxpayer” and citizen?
Then, the Aaron webpage narrative juxtaposes “taxpayers” as having to bear the burden of the appeal process in terms of staff costs etc. Who are these “taxpayers” and what is a “taxpayer” versus a citizen? The whole “taxpayer” meme reduces public participation to a selfish monetary level, while ignoring and minimizing the actual democratic, participatory role of societal members as citizens. Being a citizen comes with much more responsibility than being a mere “taxpayer.” Taxpayers tend to come off as whiny victims while citizens have a broader view.
This is where the American anything goes, individualism, Providence, and self-reliance ethic is on a head-on collision with the sustainability ethic. Selfishness versus sacrifice. Individual versus community.
People’s selfish desires are appealed to with the “taxpayer” meme, whereas the citizen meme is about public policy as a whole, about participatory democracy, which means one person, one vote, not plutocracy and the control of the many by the few. I suppose taxpayers can be seen as resisting control by the faceless bureaucracy and its “deep state” interests, but that’s a whole other essay.
Nevertheless, an every-dog-for-himself, taxpayer-based ideology will never be able to produce the cooperation necessary to solve humanity’s current systemic problems. Is “taxpayers” all about money? Somebody is taking my money away? I should have all my money and let Main Street eat cake? Being a citizen requires a bit higher-level view.
Aaron goes in to disrespectfully state that Main Street citizen’s issue “have no merit”, are “frivolous”, and that they “merely regurgitate issues that have already been considered by the planning commission.” And he calls the neighbors NIMBY’s and that their points “reek of NIMBYism.”
Folks, if this is not a complete spin job to make the wealthy out as victims, and to tank the process in place as invalid and unfair to the rich, then what is? This spin job is clearly aimed at three city council members, to get their three votes in favor of what these Machiavelli-Princes want. This spun narrative goes along with a behind the scenes effort at intimidation through lawsuits, accusations of bias, accusations of lying, request for council members and Planning Commissioners to recuse from hearings, freedom of information requests, and cease and desist orders.
A two-pronged attack on Main Street values
What we have here is a two-pronged attack on the city council and on the Planning Commission, with the goal of stacking the system so the developers get what they want. This is done under the guise of justice, objectivity, the rule of law but in actuality, is a naked power play. Prong one is the creation of a narrative to paint the rich and powerful as victims; and to assert that favoring the rich and powerful is actually neutral and objective, merely interpreting city codes, as if such General Plan items do not contain any values that need balancing and interpretation through citizen involvement. And prong two is to blatantly try and remove people and/or influence votes so as to achieve the desired local Wall Street results in projects.
The hillside battle is part of a larger war
These issues are all now coming to a head over the Jasper et al developer’s hillside homes project(s). This project is not a big local housing issue. It’s only two or three houses. Wall Street guys have no real equity issues or housing problems; this is not a cohort that needs “justice” for housing or equal opportunity or anything like that. These homes will not solve the housing crisis in any remote way. These are people who have already gamed the system to have all the advantages. They feel entitled, privileged; and when this is challenged, they go off on a tantrum. The tantrum is the war.
This hillside deal is part and parcel of an ongoing war between the Protect Sonoma group and the Caymus Capital cohort, which is the same as the Aaron-Jasper cohort. This is just the latest battle in the same war. The Aaron webpage’s unified narrative that joins all the events into one page proves it is all part of the same war. Now the city council will get to weigh in on the sum total of this whole war.
One real basis for the council to decide (as a point in the war) is how to interpret the Hillside Ordinance. Given that there are guidelines, and the Planning Commission chose to interpret them one way, but that an appeal has been made, as a legitimate step in the process in place, the council gets to now interpret the guidelines. Hence, a lobbying battle will now transpire to convince three votes to see things one way or another, in particular about the meaning of one 5000 square foot pad per lot.
Then the webpage gets to the Jasper hillside video. The tone appears nice and calm, reasonable even.
No views are shown out towards town. “I didn’t want to impact what you see here.” “Schocken Hill is a treasure for the community.” The home’s drawings also show no view out. “The views of the homes are minimal from the valley floor.” OK, but let’s see what the hoped-for view is from the resident’s standpoint; what will the view look like from the hill? Common sense says that if there is a view out, then everyone can see the home as well. How much visual impact is a critical issue, and plans should clearly show what the public can expect to see on Schocken Hill here. Pad size per lot and viewscape do not feel to me as a spurious set of considerations. These do not represent lying, regurgitated, reeking NIMBYism that is frivolously without merit. Shoot, if local Main Street actors had a stable of lawyers, think of the allegations of defamation of character that could be made here!
The council will have to decide if such name calling actually rises to the level of objective discussion of the issues at stake, as they appear to be discussed in the Jasper video.
Says Mr. Jasper, “what we can do is make sure we adhere to all the requirements for hillside building, and make sure we think of the community as a whole in these projects.” Very well Bill, let’s have the hearing.
The video also quotes Commissioner McDonald as saying he thinks “the residence shows respect for the hillside guidelines.” The video does not note that McDonald also said that Jasper’s own hillside house was “an eyesore.”
The remainder of the webpage goes into allegations and innuendo of supposed impropriety by council members etc. These amount to a local Wall Street actors playing hardball to try and get their way, so as to have their projects approved. This is the bare knuckles, prong two of the power play strategy.
The war is not over
As mentioned, the General Plan planning process will certainly be the context for battles over the future of Sonoma. For example, how zoning will put forward values that support affordable or market rate housing. Hotels are a battlefront where benefits accrue to a small number of investors and rich tourists, and to the city coffers (i.e. retirement funds), but actually may lower the quality of life in town. Who are the decision makers working for here? The war is, in my estimation, an effort to bring to heel the outsized economic leg of the sustainability triple bottom line. In the war, look for the free market cohort to attack sustainability. This will go against common sense in many ways, and only by seeking to deconstruct the spin of the local 1% development interests, can public consciousness be raised to see the core issues at stake.
The city council election promises to be a format to instate representatives of either sustainability ethics or free market ideology. With getting three votes such a critical barometer of future policy, there will not be much room for candidates who try and fudge the muddy, non-committal middle ground.