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 four

Posted on March 20, 2018 by Fred Allebach

There is a phenomenon called bureaucratic drift. It is like mission creep. This is where bureaucracy starts to act under its own preferences and interests. When authority is delegated by the council, there is leeway in implementation. This leeway is where the city manager can exercise power and control. This leeway opens up a possible area where interests of city manager and council may diverge. The mitigation for bureaucratic drift is council oversight and procedural controls.

Administrators are supposed to enact policy, not make it, but interests inevitably get blurred. What are the interests of bureaucrats and why?

In the past, the council has seemed content on many issues to let the city manager, and city attorney, frame issues and guide them in policy. This has seemed sometimes to be a hands-off approach that was lacking in council homework, analysis, and public discussion. Issues have not been well fleshed out. Now, at least one council member has the energy to address possible bureaucratic drift issues.

To be fair, to run a city is going to take awareness and knowledge of a host of factors. I don’t think anyone on staff gets up in the morning and thinks they are not doing good works. Nevertheless, any organization or outfit can drift off of their core mission, and once the drift starts, justifications start as well. Drift and mission creep are common human, organizational issues, and not a property peculiar to city staff.


Herein lies an issue. The public wants transparency in government operations, but Iron Triangle special interest lobbying and bureaucratic drift are by definition not transparent. How to shine a light on special interest lobbying? To know the extent of it, by who, and when, how much of an effect it has?

It’s no secret that the most powerful economic interests have the most influence in town, and that in some respects this is natural, for actors at this level to work together to plan the economic future. However, from a transparency standpoint, how did staff and council come to allow wine tourism to totally take over? How will this process have meaningful public input now, and be truly transparent as to how the powerful inside players are continuing to exert influence? What about the interests of working locals?

The question then becomes, does the current city regime inevitably end up recapping the same patterns as the last city manager’s regime? Do all city administrations end up defaulting to a certain level of bureaucratic inertia? Do the wagons get circled again, and the public and council end up on the outside looking in trying to figure out how to get a hand on the steering wheel? All these tea leaves have to be read, as survival of all players depends on making the right calls given who may be in power, just like Machiavellian feudal Italy.

As long as there appears to be a council majority to favor local business interests, and the Chamber, TID and SVVB, then the current Iron Triangle lobbying gestalt can continue, and only have to field a few comments from a public that can’t quite figure out what is going on.

In terms of transparency then, if city decisions can’t be traced to policy makers but rather emerge from an opaque process of bargaining among electeds, staff, and special interests, then responsibility and accountability for these activities is obscured: not transparent.

Game theory 

How and why staff acts as it does can also be glossed through a game theory lens. The following is based on a piece by Brent Durbin, Encyclopedia Brittanica. What we have is bargaining situation, among a core group of central governmental actors.

“These actors come to the game with varying preferences, abilities, and positions of power. Participants choose strategies and policy goals based on different ideas of what outcomes will best serve their organizational and personal interests. Bargaining then proceeds through a pluralist process of give-and-take that reflects the prevailing rules of the game as well as power relations among the participants. Because this process is neither dominated by one individual nor likely to privilege expert or rational decisions, it may result in suboptimal outcomes that fail to fulfill the objectives of any of the individual participants.”

Bureaucratic bargaining among constituent actors is a way of understanding how the decision-making process works. This contrasts with possible processes that have a single, rational decision maker at the top, and/or processes that simply follow the bureaucratic rules, and where decisions are already made by the rules. For example, does the General Plan guide all decisions, or are things bargained for along the way, and the rules changed depending on which actors are effected at the time? Does one person make the call on changes or is it a bargaining process? Is the public interest front and central in bargaining, or special interests?

In a bargaining/ bureaucratic politic decision making model: actors take up policies that benefit the organizations they represent rather than collective, city or valley-wide interests. This is called Mile’s law, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Which is to say, actors easily fall into a place of advocating for the interests of their job or constituency. “For example, actors who serve as part of a temporary political administration (commissions), appointees, might be likely to pursue shorter-term interests than would career civil servants with long-standing organizational affiliations.” Certainly, there are tensions among commissions and staff, as to how far any advocacy or action can go.

Relationship issues also play into the bureaucratic decision making process. Sonoma politics is a mine field of relationship issues that has to be navigated. Who is in enemy of so and so? Does everyone need to inherit each other’s enemies? How to play your hand in a whole field of alliances and differences? The trick is to not let relationship issues, good or bad,  affect substantive decision making.

General Plan

It would be fine if the General Plan was a solid roadmap that we could all look to, to provide answers to all questions. But it is not. The GP is an all-purpose document that tries to include all the community’s aspirations. Everyone can find some piece of info in there that will contradict something else. It is just like William Blake’s quote about how “both reads the Bible day and night, where thou readest back where I readest white.”

In a smallish face to face community, in my opinion, the best we can do is to all be transparent about what our values and interest are. Then the inevitable tensions and conflicts can at least be more honest.

Baseline information

City staff is a main conduit for the public to know the law, rules, and regulations of any local issue or process. Decisions, at the end of the day, are supposed to be based on objective standards. In a perfect world, staff would always lead the public to a clear view of a decision’s baseline parameters, and the extent that values impinged on that would be where the public could see judgment being exercised.

The public, in many cases, has equal access to solid baseline information. And so, many times this all loops back into disputing what the facts are. An ideal staff report would lay out the different theories at stake, show how they conform to what facts, and make a strength-of-argument case for the most solid interpretation.


Personally, I see city staff, all local players as fundamentally good actors. No one is evil here and all act for what they see as a greater good. Troubles come out when city stakeholders can’t see, understand, or admit what their underlying interests are. All players in town, including citizens critical of government would do well to be transparent about what their interests are. My interests? Social and environmental justice. These interests derive from equity and sustainability issues that can be found as the moral basis for all the great religions. Everyone has their reasons, as to what constitutes the optimum social fabric.

For local tensions, why do primarily econmic interests seem to appear to be lacking a harm and fairness moral basis? Why does it look so selfish? What am I missing here?

Plenty of energy is spent in town focusing on who to blame. At the end of the day, it is the residents, citizens, and participants who are ultimately responsible for educating themselves and participating at a high level, to make sure that government is a reflection of community values, desires and aspirations. Town and valley issues can get messy and contestive. This is good as it shows democracy at work.

In my own gloss, the importance of trying to understand staff interests, is to develop a line that government is accountable to the decision makers, and not run behind the scenes by the covert interests of big money. It is the city council that is supposed to be providing the leadership, yet we have not really had a city council that is transparent as to what their values and interests are. The public sees the reflection of those values and interests, but like the Plato’s cave metaphor, they are shadow images.

I see the Capriola regime as taking steps to make city government more transparent and professional. I see good things happening on many fronts. Yes, bureaucracy is slow, but the guiding hand here is firm, and set with good public service principles.

With the coming city council election, and with the widespread dissatisfaction with Trump and the dysfunctional, run-by-the-money Republican Congress, I predict that city residents will be looking for breath of fresh air, and they will choose locally what they cannot change nationally.

Regardless of who is on the council, the essential role of city staff will not change. Agenda priorities may shift, and that’s all part of the play’s drama, that keeps engaged citizens transfixed, watching, and involved.





One thought on “The role of staff in city government, part four

  1. Thanks for the commentary. Maybe the actors are not evil, however they are at times dishonest…actually too many times!

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