The city council defines and directs city goals and priorities for city staff, and commissions to work by. The council and the people they represent however, are divided into discreet interest groups where there is not always agreement, alignment, or a clear majority.
For the formal goals process, the city manager has a critical role. She keeps an eye on baseline pragmatic stuff, finds common areas, and tries to satisfy individual members. The city manager’s mantra is “alignment with council goals”, which respects the democratic process. In the end, goals and formal policy are only what three or more members vote for, hence the importance of elections.
For big picture goal items, the current council is stalemated. Hence there’s no collective will to address core issues, as “core” cannot be agreed upon. The upcoming election is a chance to seat a more definitive council, and hence to have more definitive goals.
This year, formal goals definition is lagging behind the budget process. The budget cart has gotten in front of the goals horse, for various reasons such as the fires, backlogged cannabis and Nexus study, and appeals of contested projects. These exigencies and put-off critical items underline that not all things of city importance can be rigidly aligned and planned out. Upshot: the framing of the budget, and not goals, will largely define current city priorities.
Current goals are shaping up to be: downtown parking; Broadway ambience and traffic; housing; General Plan update; cemetery; and public engagement/ public presentation style.
As someone who has kept close tabs on tourism issues in the region, I see this long-term council interest has dropped off the goals list. Instead of taking on the central cause (unsustainable tourism-based gentrification) of many of Sonoma’s contested issues, the council will now address its symptoms with parking, traffic and street appearance.
This disengagement from reckoning head on with tourism’s central role in many town conflicts, reflects a view by staff and enough council members, that tourism is about all benefit, with tolerable costs. The city’s economic development strategy is representatively split, because council members, who define goals, are at odds on this issue. There are not three votes to agree on how to frame the tourism issue, or to make a coherent economic development strategy. Upshot: put a reckoning of tourism into the General Plan bucket.
So why are there parking problems? If the city keeps spending $800,000 a year to tell the whole world to come here, then there will be parking problems. The city is funding advertising to draw more to an already overcrowded small space. Look at all the tour buses and vans driving through our neighborhoods like wild animal park! While Sonoma is a top destination; it is also top-ten most unaffordable for residents. Connection? Of course there is. When a place is hyped so much, people flock to it, want to join the party, prices go up all around, and many are displaced. It is not even so much that it is tourism, more an extreme example of unsustainable US capitalism.
To date, Sonoma economic benefits have not trickled down and those who bear gentrification’s costs have trickled out of town. In spite of reams of evidence showing the need for a larger sustainability plan, no one at the city is taking the bull by the horns and dealing with the prime causative agent of the city’s main problems. Why not? Why not a consultant study that widens the scope with full cost accounting, something looking at more than symptoms (parking) of business as usual? With a divided council, a consultant study by a sustainability-centered firm like Fodor and Associates couldn’t even be hired.
In the current draft goals staff report, parking troubles are attributed to a “heightened economy.” This heightening doesn’t just happen; it is the result of strategic action by the city. No need for a big parking study, just cool it on the tourism promotion, corral the TID and SVVB, and cooled-off parking will follow. Or alternately, keep the gravy train going full steam, but consciously steer the benefits more equitably…
Every measure of sustainability points to finding adaptive ways to limit growth, limiting energy use, and limiting consumption of natural resources. This is a call for innovation in Sonoma, not for a constant reworking of tired ideological or NIMBY zero sum games, or stale restatements of economic bottom line arguments only. To enact the adaptive goals needed, the city electorate needs to choose sharp, motivated people who can articulate the issues and step up to the plate and take action.
If the city has core issues that are related to a common source, it makes sense to define that source and have goals to address it at that level. But, the current council cannot agree on big goals.
Housing is, thankfully, a council goal, and is by consensus, a long-term serious issue, but not enough of one to really take serious action. This has been years now. At the recent city budget hearing, Amy Harrington made a number of funding proposals to steer resources to actually trickle down to where it is needed. If the private sector is not doing it, the public sector needs to step up. Previously Mayor Agrimonti proposed a million dollars for housing from city reserves. Why did she not support Harrington? Where’s the beef? Why not agreement to dedicate some higher raised TOT to housing?
Conclusion about the current goals process: it avoids core issues because of a divided council, treats symptoms, does not boldly take up housing or share any of the town’s benefits on housing plans, and every member gets a pet project. For more action on housing, look to the next election. Three votes decides city goals.