The City of Sonoma has a challenging problem; specifically, the city’s population is technically about 10,000 citizens, but its influence extends all the way from Kenwood to Schellville. And the same problem exists in reverse; Sonoma Valley residents from Kenwood to Schellville feel they have a stake in the City of Sonoma.
This manifests in various ways. Though only 10,000-residents strong, the city provides civic services–police, fire, maintenance, etc.–for a population much larger than that. Adding up the daily tourists, valley residents and workers from out of town yields a number equal to or much greater than the number of tax-paying residents. This drives the cost of government higher although the resident tax base is essentially static. Though the city collects sales taxes from all the out-of-town residents of the valley every time they shop in town and collects TOT from tourists staying in city accommodations, it’s not enough money to cover the increased cost of government, including its share of employee pensions, as our Sun In-Depth Report in this issue explains. Sonoma alone utilizes sixteen Sheriff’s personnel, as many as are assigned to the rest of the valley. In this sense, Sonoma has the income of a small town but the expenses of a much larger city.
Another effect is public opinion. The city’s procedures for processing development applications and other matters remain open to public opinion, including from those who live out-of-town. Commission and City Council meetings provide everyone an opportunity to express an opinion, no matter where they live. All members of the public get equal time, even if that member of the public lives in Sebastopol. This is a reflection of the fact that city borders are, in a sense, just lines on a map. Decisions have regional impacts, and the public’s desire to be heard–no matter where they reside–mirrors that reality.
Some have suggested that only city residents be allowed to address the City Council, or that out-of-town residents be given less time for public comment. We feel that would be a mistake; sometimes democracy is untidy, but openness to public comment remains high on our list of democratic underpinnings.
There are some out-of-town residents, especially in The Springs, who complain that they cannot vote in the City of Sonoma even though they live close by, spend their money in town and have to put up with Sonoma’s traffic and crowds of tourists. To us, this speaks more of the distance and remove people feel about their political representation in Sonoma County than some deep inequity in the right to vote. For better or worse, where you can vote is dictated by where you live, and on which side of what border. Just because one visits or works in San Francisco does not confer the right to vote in San Francisco elections. While we understand the frustration of not being able to vote, unless voting residency requirements change, they will remain the gold standard of voter registration.
We believe our overall valley community, including the City of Sonoma, benefits from the type of open dialogue and public process that’s taken place here for many years. We encourage public participation no matter where one resides, and feel citizenship is the most important civic role any of us have.
– Sun Editorial Board