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 three

Posted on March 19, 2018 by Fred Allebach

What’s on the agenda and why?  

If citizens and their council representatives were able to always agendize whatever they wanted, this would certainly disrupt the efficiency of larger comprehensive planning of city business. On one hand, it is the city manager’s job to prioritize issues and when they will be addressed, and on the other hand, all other parties, like popcorn, want their issues to be front and center right now. This is the difference between initiatives and operations management.

This is a legitimate tension, and par for the course. What this amounts to in real ways, is that what business gets addressed when, is a power and control issue, one that is expected to be addressed by a manager to whom such power and control is delegated. With a strong city manager form of government, you would expect the city manager to be forceful and exercise her broad authority as outlined in the job description. Somebody has to set priorities and that is the city manager’s job. As well, it takes a certain amount of political vision and reading the tea leaves to ascertain what issues break through the normal order of operations and of waiting in line to get on the agenda.

As per the recent special meeting concerning the agenda process, the city council and staff will revisit the agenda quarterly, and check in for council member initiatives. It would follow, that the public can lobby a council member, to introduce an initiative. Given that staff can only do so many things, the trade-off is that initiatives bump other items farther back in the agenda process.

Given that everyone feels like their issues are the most important ones in the world, even proactive agenda transparency, like we are seeing now out of the city, is likely to still field complaints. As well, it seems like there is increased development pressure, with more projects coming out all at once. To be fair to developers and the public, a balance has to be struck where developers are not kept waiting forever, and the public is not swamped by so many projects that intelligent, thoughtful comments cannot be researched and made.

Somebody has to set the priorities, and this is the city manager’s job. One set of priorities is to distill the council’s goals, from an all-day goal-setting forum. Some of the top issues here are affordable housing and balancing tourism and residents’ interests.

Just like a governor or president, the city manager can become the lightning rod for everyone’s hopes and expectations. Someone in the positon of having to address the breadth of a whole town’s and region’s hopes and fears, is inevitably going to field criticism from many, because many cannot see outside their own memes, interests, and sets of assumptions, about what is a fair process.

The Iron Triangle

Let’s remember that the role of the city manager and staff is supposed to be apolitical. Everything is supposed to be transparent and accountable. The purpose of a city manager form of government is to avoid corruption and unethical behavior by not allowing private interests to dominate the overall public interests. If the city manager’s job is to give complete and unbiased info to the council, this then should include a full slate of all the interests coming to bear on any particular issue. And, the city attorney should be backing up this effort in a similarly unbiased way.

Let’s put an Iron Triangle level of analysis on Sonoma city government and see how it fits. The Iron Triangle is a conceptual way of understanding how government decisions get made, by sub-government actors consisting of interest groups (lobbyists), subcommittees of electeds, and agency bureaucrats.

In a way, this can be seen as a “deep state”, this is the bureaucratic swamp that Trump wants to drain. Never mind that any flavor of Iron Triangle is its own swamp of interests, and that every set of interests can be seen as a metaphor for an Iron Triangle swamp. Therefore, with a Washington DC metaphor, environmentalists saw the Obama EPA as relatively good, and the Trump EPA, with Scott Pruitt at the head, as pure, 100% swamp. Swamp is in the eyes of the beholder.

From where I stand in city politics, the role of developers in lobbying for city policy is one I tend to personally view as swamp territory. This is the current powers that be. The city council has mostly had a developer friendly, three-vote majority in the last decade. Should the three-vote majority change to a more resident-friendly, or to a more triple bottom line sustainability council flavor, then developers will be crying bloody murder about Iron Triangle swamps.

The Iron Triangle is made up of the people behind the scenes who make the critical decisions to steer policy. The reality here is, from a Machiavellian view, every entity in some position of power is going to try and stack the system in their favor. Who wouldn’t? The challenge then becomes how to suss out the interests of staff actors, who claim to just be functionaries and agents of elected officials, but who also appear to be agents of special interests, intense commercial projects on the Plaza, market rate housing and wine tourism, for example.

If staff implements policy, you could see that an apparent developer-friendly stance is an accurate reading of the tea leaves of the mostly-gelled current council majority. The gravity of the council has tended to pull that way. If the gravity were to change, then staff would have to implement along the lines of the new political calculus, and if staff didn’t, then this would be a deep state kind of situation.

As the final decision-making arbiter, the council has to assess if staff reports are coming out that are congruent with council values and goals. A council that doesn’t get into the weeds of staff reports and issues will be more likely to take a deep state staff recommendation, as they simply will not have any basis to challenge staff.

In a way, staff are like special agent witch doctors who command secret and arcane information. Only by pealing back the layers of the secret codes, can anyone get to a level where they can make an equal statement. This is to say, many issues are super detailed and complicated, and it takes a lot of time and energy for the public to come up to speed on any one issue. This is why it is good to not rush issues and agenda items, and why the public frequently calls for an EIR, just to give space to figure the implications of project all out. If all of a sudden you only have three days or a week to digest a large project, with a use permit and negative declaration in the line, you are basically going to get snowed under by lack of mastery of the material.

City staff has close contacts with interest group lobbyists who want to influence city actions. Interest groups promise some sort of benefit (primarily money and revenue) to the city. Lobbyists provide supporting narratives, and are motivated to have their point of view heard. Interests of all types value staff contact to maybe shape laws and policy that govern their interests. In Iron Triangle theory, the three above-mentioned groups, interest groups, subcommittees of electeds, and agency bureaucrats set most government policies. This puts city staff and lobbyists as core actors in setting policy, as such policy later appears framed in staff reports.

Citizen groups with no money or particular power can be left out in the cold, unless someone runs for city council specifically to represent such groups. For example, in Sonoma, three main interest-cohorts are tourism business stakeholders, wealthy homeowners and working locals. Working locals have gotten the short policy shrift as they are not organized on anywhere near the level of business interests.

General examples of Iron Triangle influence peddling and policy creation: the AARP and the NRA. Local examples of Iron Triangle influence peddling and policy creation: the developer lobby, the wine-tourism industry. In Sebastopol, maybe the environmental lobby is stronger than in Sonoma?  The efficacy of the Iron Triangle really gets down to who the most powerful players in society are, and how they make their influence felt in the political process in place. “The process in place”, the Ken Brown phrase that keeps on giving. The process in place includes appeals, ballot initiatives, and lawsuits.

For Sonoma, the creation of the Tourism Improvement District by the city council, and the city funding of the Chamber and Visitor’s Bureau, and city staff/elected support of downtown hotel  and other development projects, amounts to an economic development strategy that benefits the city and local businesses, but may not benefit working locals. It is not unusual that cities have economic development, that the local Chamber is supported etc. as what city would pay no attention to its economy?

Where some may see an Iron Triangle swamp of lobbying money, others see beneficial business as usual. As long as the stage is not set for more productive community dialogue on local issues that includes working locals and residential interests, then issues will likely continue to unfold in a zero-sum game context. The framing of this potential productive community dialogue really rests with the council, and the fact that the council has mostly not had a clear direction or the determination to address significant community tensions over housing, and balancing tourism with Sonoma’s residential, small town character, means that the public is left to fight it out on the streets.

Many locals have noticed a local Iron Triangle, and how it seems that consultants magically support the big money actors, and no neutral or alternate study seems to get done that shows any costs, and lack of real benefits to residents. Non-moneyed public interests are seldom represented in city cost-benefit analyses. As Samuel Mendlinger said in his analysis of tourist locations, “money does the talking.”

The council is currently split, with two free market ideologues, one strong liberal, one moderate liberal, and one free floater. All of these believe they are doing good. This leaves the SAHA project approved five to zero; and the city did put substantial money, $100,000 I believe, to support the project. Nevertheless, SAHA will cost $20 million total for 50 units, and this was easy to support as it met a clear need and it was all someone else’s money. When it gets down to the city generating the money for affordable housing, where’s the beef? Is a nexus impact fee of $6 a square foot going to end up building anything?

With the coming formalization of council goals, that do address the town’s most serious issues, we will see how the city manager frames the issues, and how she threads the needle of different community interests to meet these goals. Will the bull be taken by the horns and a serious reckoning if the place of a growing luxury tourism be made, or will big money dominated business-as-usual prevail?

Cathy Capriola’s regime

In new city manager Capriola’s term which started 1/9/17, she came out of the gate displaying a strong ability to learn and to frame issues for the council in a balanced way. Early examples: the Farmer’s Market dust up, and the allocation of city monies for local non-profits showed a strong ability to frame issues in a comprehensive way. In my analysis, Capriola inherited problems not of her making, particularly in finance, and the city was then beset with a series of crises, with a disjointed council recovering from a hot election, and then the fires, plus a series of involved policy issues like cannabis, hotels, legal attacks by developers, compounded by a council of varying abilities and priorities, etc. This was a tough hand to be dealt.

In a new regime, the chief many times selects a new team. Capriola does have the Public Works and Finance department heads as new. They are hers. This leaves Building and Planning department heads and city attorney as long term centers of institutional gravity in Capriola’s new era, ones that may pull her off her preferred orbit. The older top staff are also ones that have the institutional memory to help her.

Any changing of the guard presumably has to be merit-based, and people can’t just be let go, to get new faces who will play to the new city manager’s preferences, if this was even an accepted practice, as it is with the president and the cabinet. The whole scene is supposed to be a neutral functionary processes anyway, and the interjection of Iron Triangle overlay and bureaucratic drift (see below) considerations might be ones that city management would not be politic to admit as even real. After all, the strong city manager form of government was created to put a stop to Iron Triangle type stuff. Yet, human nature being what it is, you will never be rid of interests jockeying for power and control.

The city manager is now caught between the caprice of a council somewhat at odds with itself ideologically, and who seem to have a conservative majority vote, and with powerful local business interests, upper level staff inertia, and a public that has various expectations, and ongoing exterior circumstance calling for action by the city. No wonder the city manager works 70 hours a week!

Anyone who might hope for a clear direction of what power interest will prevail better be patient. However, there are many signs in Sonoma government today that impartial procedural processes are increasingly in place.


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