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 staff in city government, part two

Posted on March 12, 2018 by Fred Allebach

Here is where we get to the Humpty Dumpty clause: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Since many times the law comes down to certain weasel words or weasel word phrases that define the core issues, like “substantial compliance” or “5000 square foot pad” or “significant and unreasonable”, there is a lot of room for interpretation. Stakeholders make their cases, there is a staff report, and decision makers have to weigh all in the balance in some way that appears fair, that has some factual basis beyond mere opinion.

Since laws and regulations, like CEQA, and the city Development Code, are complex and involved, and may even have contradictory aspects, advocates frequently seize upon certain sets of facts that prove their case, and simultaneously ignore and attempt to delegitimize the other guys. This is what I have termed alternate universes of facts colliding. This dynamic is summed up very nicely by the following William Blake quote: “Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read black where I read white.”

This leaves us with a paradox: there is supposed to be a legal, objective, neutral baseline, to resolve land use and other issues. But the facts are fungible, by all parties, and so even the baseline is called into question. The only conclusion to the paradox of appealing to facts, is that interests and assumptions are primary.

Where do interests and assumptions come from? They come from biology, and from culture and from the values that are reflective of these two primary human deterministic baselines.

This leads to the necessity of city staff hewing to an ideal of being demonstrably neutral and fair. Staff are not the advocates or the policy makers, they are the administrators who are doing the people’s business. That’s how it is supposed to work.

Role of the staff report

Framing is a central issue in staff reports. A balanced, neutral approach that lays out all sides of the issue is the ideal. Staff can recommend a course of action or leave it up to the council or commission to decide. If staff makes a recommendation, on what basis? If the report favors a certain interest, can this be justified by the facts and findings of the established process in place?

Legal precedents, codes, rules, regulations and guidelines stand as the decisive ground for defining the facts. Given that law is an arcane and complicated field, governments and wealthy parties have an unfair advantage over average citizens, in being able to research, develop a case and lobby for certain definitions to stand as primary.

Many times, it appears that applicant, appellant, and staff-hired consultants are not neutral entities. They suffer from principal-agent issues where there is pressure for the consultant to divine what the greatest power gravity will want as the final outcome. For example, Consultant X works in the Bay Area. Darius Anderson and Kenwood Investments are like the Pope and Vatican in feudal Italy of the Bay Area. Is Consultant X going to say an Anderson project is not good and then risk not getting hired by any other big players in the future? This type of principal-agent problem is exactly how the Lehmann Brothers accountants ended up fudging the last mortgage bundling fiasco, and tipped off the last big recession. The point: facts can be manipulated to serve certain interest and they are.

See the diagram on the right, below the first paragraph of the link above, for a very clear graphic of the principal-agent problem.

In the staff report, information issues are huge. Access to information, how it is framed, who frames it and why, what is withheld, all adds up to what may be the most critical power and control issue of all. This is where staff reports, and the acceptance or questioning analysis of them, play a crucial role in how public policy proceeds. Many times, it is the easy path to simply accept a staff report, especially if it is 300 detailed pages. Information can get stacked one way or another depending on biases, which all parties being human, are impossible to avoid.

It takes a lot of work, and a strong fluency in the overall topic, to understand underlying issues and what is at stake in a staff report.

Is it possible for a neutral report to be made? Or is the process such that alternate universes of facts are destined to collide, and to be melded in new ways through a staff report, the meanings of which have to then be divined and disputed by interested parties, and then appealed and judged by political bodies, to then be decided by a final lawsuit in front a judge.

If neutrality was the principal characteristic of a staff report, there might be less appeals, and whatever issues and factual disputes there were would simply come to the fore earlier in the process. Or maybe staff reports are an attempt at neutrality and the fundamental conflict of interests of actors in society just boils over anyway regardless of how information is presented?

Spock, “but that would not be logical…” 

To quote Michael Roberts again, “To understand the actions of a state—indeed, of any large, complex organization—one must understand the rules governing its decision-making processes and the motivations of actors participating therein.”  “The result of such a process may well indicate a compromise point without any clear internal strategic logic and may even reflect the unintended consequence of a dynamic tug-of-war among actors. Thus, it may be very difficult to interpret the intentions that underlie the seemingly strategic behavior of complex organizations, making interactions with these bodies less predictable and, in some spheres, such as international conflict, consequently more dangerous.”

Thus, when locals are trying to figure how to influence land use, housing, climate, or tourism policy, the assumptions of normal human relations, cause and effect, a neutral baseline of facts, do not necessarily hold. City government is not necessarily a rational, realistic, pragmatic, or neutral actor. There is a host of human and organizational factors that play into how decisions get made.

If staff is doing the people’s business, “the people” have a wide swath of interests, all of which are not identical.

Analyzing bureaucrats’ roles

People have always carped about “the system.” What we have with city hall is a classic example of “the system”, i.e. a system with deeply embedded operating procedures wherein it is not immediately obvious how it got there, why it works the way it does, and what interests it may have. Government has a “that’s just how it is” aspect, and many give up trying to effect change, with a premise that “you can’t fight city hall.”

The upcoming General Plan update will be a chance for citizens to have some say about the rules and regulations going forward.

When citizens and electeds run up against the city bureaucracy, which is a methodical, process-based government organizational set of approaches, rules and regulations, they can run up against a brick wall of “the way it is.” This is business as usual, or BAU. Who has the time and energy to master understanding exactly what local government is about and to know all the texts and hierarchies that make up the operating rules?

In the absence of clear information, people’s imaginations start to fill in the blank spaces. Give them one or a few instances of malfeasance and they maybe start to see it everywhere.

The city has now revamped its website to present critical information in a more transparent way. With a bit of practice, an average citizen can now access the source codes for the hows and whys of city government. This is a positive development, one that can be traced to the new city manager’s regime.

Memes of city government

Sonoma has various memes going for how city government is. When a meme gets established, people conceptually then shoehorn all information into the preferred meme. Possible memes: Sonoma is just fine, Sonoma has an average bureaucracy, Sonoma is corrupt, Sonoma is run by big money behind the scenes. The perceived and actual truth of the meme is going to depend on many things that not any one person really knows. The point: a meme at some point starts to become a habit and matter of belief.

Actualities of city government

A video of the recent city commission training session was taken. Anyone who wants to see the context for how the city is running commissions, and taking citizen input therein, can try their luck at finding the video on the city website. As a Community Services and Environmental Commission member, I found the training to be quite good. Sure, there is a system, but as engaged actors, citizens have the space to step up, establish relationships, and work to see the people’s business, i.e. theirs and others, values and ideals reflected, in a fair and transparent way.

Anyone interested in government, and city government will find there is a lot to know and digest. Through years of interest, this has been to me kind of like a Lord of the Rings-type epic journey, where new and greater discovery just keeps on unfolding.


What seems to happen with bureaucracy in general is that efficiency and conforming to official process and work plans comes to rule over principle. Efficiency and conforming becomes a goal in and of itself. BAU can become bureaucratic drift.

Hence there arise tensions, also with council members and commissioners, about who is driving the ship, who has their hands on the steering wheel, who can steer for a minute or two here and there, and what the purpose of city government is? Whose and what interests are primary? What ideals and priorities are being manifested here and why? In order to get a fair view here takes some work, and single issue actors might see their issue subsumed by other issues.

Here is where the metaphor of all city actors being analogous to wildlife on the Serengeti Plain may be apt. Each species has its peculiar interests and behavior, and somehow city staff is in charge of corralling all these wild impulses into some orderly process. All are going to agree in what the facts are? Probably not. The facts for lions are different from those of zebras.

Are the work plans locked in place, that we must all get down on our knees to respect and conform to, and such plans can only be changed every 10 years? Or can salient issues be addressed institutionally on the fly with amendments and exceptions? There is public frustration here that at once, past policy is not adhered to, and that policy is not flexible enough. I guess staff can’t win with that double bind.

The city council held a special meeting on 3/5, where the council discussed how items get on the agenda, how the work plan can be responsive to current events and council member’s individual interests, and how commissions can develop work plans congruent with their respective missions, and with dialogue with the council. It was quite a good meeting, one that shows a new staff regime being proactive and administering city business at a very high and comprehensive level.

The whole question of rules, rigidity, planning, flexibility, adaptability, is one that gets to the heart of the role of government in a state society. At what level do citizens expect to have control? By shaping sets of rules, short term work plans and General Plan, and then bowing down to those rules without change? Or by recognizing that some situations call for quicker adaptation and change on the fly? There is a tension and lag time, between planning ahead, and having to deal with changed situations that call for altering the plans.


For large development issues, is the system “rigged” to give advantages to some actors and not others? The question of “rigging” will be taken up below with a discussion of the Iron Triangle.

The idea of rigging, at whatever level, is really nothing more than stakeholders trying to mold the process in place so that it reflects their interests and values.


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