Several public comments made recently at Planning Commission and City Council meetings, brought our attention to the fact that not everyone understands appeal hearings and their role in the due process of law.
The City Council is the only elected body in the City of Sonoma. As such the council has the final authority to rule on city matters. Commission members, on the other hand, are appointees, and city staff are hired employees. Any action by a city commission or in some cases action by city staff, can be appealed by the public to the City Council for deliberation and for the making of a final decision. Moreover, an individual council member can bring an appeal before the council as a whole.
Decisions by the City Council can be appealed to courts of law, but due process requires that all local avenues of appeal must be exhausted before anymatter can be brought into the legal justice system. Accordingly, members of the public or an applicant who disagrees with a Planning Commission decision must first appeal the matter to the City Council in order to later have the opportunity to take the matter to court.
Due process of law reflects the principle that citizens are not to be abused by government and are entitled to exercise rights protected under the Constitution. This principle harkens back centuries in our legal tradition, all the way back to the Magna Carta which in 1215 limited the power of the king of England. Our U.S. Constitution, unlike that of Britain, is written, and unless amended its intent and language form the basis of jurisprudence in America. The work of the Supreme Court is to determine its meaning, intent, language and words, but what is undeniable is that due process is the lynchpin of our legal system.
Coming back to the matter of appeals, while appeals can be and often are time-consuming and frustrating, they represent an essential layer of legal protection to citizens. Can appeals be avoided? The honest answer is that nothing can guarantee that appeals won’t happen but the number of appeals can be greatly reduced by insuring that the process of examination, analysis and consideration is rigorous and complete. This means that both city staff and, for example, Planning Commission members, dig deeply into their work and take the job seriously. It also means that the public’s opinion matters.
Many members of the public have years of professional experience–as lawyers, architects, arborists, and even planning experts with long careers in other jurisdictions. Moreover, unlike paid consultants from outside the community, many local citizens live the day-to-day reality of life in this valley, and have done so for decades. Public opinion–letters and testimony before the City Council– should be considered by decision-makers because a well-informed and well-educated public is often correct and can offer valuable, time-saving information.
When the Planning Commission disregards details, considers public participation a burden, accepts staff opinion without question, or fails to do its homework on a matter of major importance, an appeal is likely. Conducting the review process properly, basing decisions on complete information and taking necessary time before making important decisions will make appeals far less common.
— Sun Editorial Board