We in Sonoma enjoy a particular status as the location of the most northward of the Missions, and notably, the birthplace of the State of California. At the very center of the City of Sonoma, the Sonoma Barracks, now a State Park, provides constant testimony to our place in history through its presence. Our Valley is filled with such history, and its value to the community is priceless.
While we celebrate our place in history, however, we also have the tendency to cherry-pick it, choosing to pay attention to those aspects which support our current policies and politics and ignoring or forgetting the aspects that do not.
The further away history appears in our rear view mirror, the more easily we acknowledge and accept it. The distance of events in time inclines us towards sentimentality and that engenders protectiveness and appreciation of its passing. The displayed list of Native Americans who died during the Mission period, essentially a list of subjugated slaves, is one example of our coming to terms, belatedly, with a history many if not all in this community had forgotten. But overall, the founding of Sonoma, the Bear Flag revolt and the role of General Mariano Vallejo are now viewed as charming relics.
Of less consequence is the history of twenty or thirty years ago, yet it is precisely this more recent history which forms the foundation of the present. In this sense, our rear view mirror is foggy and obscured; as our institutional memory has faded, we often don’t remember how we’ve arrived at our present situation.
For example, a city policy associated with historic preservation allows the “adaptive reuse” of historic structures which might otherwise deteriorate and be lost. On its face, it seems a reasonable and creative solution to properties which might otherwise be impossible to preserve over time. But how many people actually understand how or why this policy was developed or its implications? The recent City Council approval of the historic Maysonnave House on 1st St. East as a League for Historic Preservation event center allowing up to 12 private weddings per year for as many as 120 people is an example of such adaptive reuse. What should, in our opinion, have been a full-fledged examination of the property bequest by Paul Masonnave and a detailed discussion of land-use issues and parking by the Planning Commission was instead a one-meeting exercise in feel-good decision-making.
When it comes to cataloging older history there is great energy expended; photos, manuscripts, artifacts and interpretative materials are searched out and preserved. When it comes to recent city policy history, however, this enthusiasm wanes because at present it is too difficult to see the context of policy development, how it evolved and understanding why our vision, goals, policies and regulations exist to guide us into the future. We can’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been. Thus, the basis of city policy and knowing history are intertwined.
Transparency in government is a critical way to help our community understand its future through its past. We suggest that unless our records are complete, searchable and easily accessible to the public, elected officials and staff, our decision-making will perilously ignore our own lessons of recent history.
SUN Editorial Board