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A new vision for local governance

Posted on August 20, 2020 by Sonoma Valley Sun

This pandemic has proven that many of our assumptions about social structures are wrong. Conventional truths about working, economic stability, education, and community have all been challenged.

Office workers need not spend hours commuting each day to sit behind a desk and work on a computer; much of that work can be satisfactorily done at home. Our economy is fragile, not a smooth-running and predictable machine. It may be possible for kids to be educated in new ways that don’t require going to a classroom. Our local community’s resilience is not dependent upon government, but upon relationships with others and the land. 

In its own strange way, this pandemic has explicitly revealed our strengths and weaknesses.

We feel all this presents us with a great opportunity, a chance to examine the ways in which past efforts have been misguided and future efforts can be rewarding. This is particularly true when it comes to the subject of local governance.

During the past 20 years, governance has come to be dominated by a professional class; consultants, city managers, and attorneys have largely replaced community volunteers and citizens in the development of plans and policies. This in part reflects the increased complexity of governance imposed at the county, state, and national level, but it is also the product of an evolving attitude towards the public that many government professionals hold. Instead of seeing the community as a resource, bureaucracy often views citizens as a nuisance. The pandemic, with the economic stress it has placed on government, opens the door to reversing this trend.

For example, Sonoma’s City Manager has announced she will retire at the end of the year. Typically, the past approach for replacing a city manager included hiring a pricey head-hunting  firm to recruit applicants, most of whom are either at the beginning or end of their careers. From this pool of outsiders, a city manager is chosen and paid about $250,000 per year, with the hope that he or she fits well into the culture of the community. This expensive and uncertain process is not the only way to proceed, however.

An alternative approach is to recruit someone from within the community, someone well-respected with experience running a large organization with a multi-million dollar budget and roughly 50 employees, and a willingness to offer service to Sonoma at a lower price. We’ve got some exceptionally talented and experienced people living here, and many of them may be delighted to offer their services. 

Another means of addressing the financial challenges we face is to recruit community members to join a “blue ribbon” panel; such a group would delve deeply into the city budget, develop and examine forecasts, and chart a path going forward that helps the city become financially stable and resilient. Our commissions, already filled with willing and capable volunteers, should be better utilized to do the work that expensive, outside consultants have been doing. Given the precarious state of city finances, taking advantage of lower-cost options going forward will have to be part of our solutions.

We have an opportunity to shift governance gears. We can draw upon the community at large, valuing the efforts of our current hard-working commissioners, and recruiting others. Step one is for government to see the community as the valuable resource it is. Step two is to determine ways to utilize it. Our suggestion: let’s get started!

— Sun Editorial Board



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