At an upcoming meeting, the Sonoma City Council will discuss “improving” Sonoma’s appeal process. It’s not a problem that needs fixing. And in fact, tinkering with it – which likely entails jacking up the $400 filing fee – will help game the system in favor of deep-pocket developers.
At present, any citizen can file an appeal to the City Council on a decision by a city commission or member of city staff. An appeal must be filed within 15 calendar days following a staff or commission decision. To file an appeal currently requires paying a $400 fee, plus submitting appeal-related paperwork to the City Clerk. The matter is then placed on a future City Council agenda.
The appeal process is an integral part of the due process of law. Unless an appeal has been filed and acted upon, the matter cannot subsequently be submitted to the court. This is called “exhausting all local remedies,” and is an essential step in the legal process.
Appeals can be as simple as a concern about a neighbor’s fence height or as complex as concerns about a housing development or commercial project. Both city residents and non-residents have the right to appeal, or join an appeal.
Why the sudden interest in revising the process? Though there have been a few high-profile appeals over the years, the overall number is low. Over the past decade, an average of only two appeals to the council have been filed per year; no appeals were filed in three of the past 10 years. Clearly the system has not been abused.
If “improvement” means hiking up the appeal fee, we appeal.
The only possible purpose of such a hike would be to discourage the filing of appeals, and the dividing line between “discourage” and “suppress” is thin. Two foundational elements of democracy are voting and rule of law, and making either more difficult erodes democracy. Sadly, we’re witnessing a national effort to discourage voting by making it more difficult; we don’t want to see an effort put into making appeals, as rare as they are, more difficult.
Under current project application rules, large project applicants must sign an indemnification agreement that protects the city from any legal expenses associated with that project. Applicants must also provide a deposit to cover such potential expenses, and staff costs. We suggest the indemnification agreement include covering the cost of staff time for any appeals; this will provide for the reimbursement for those costs. That seems fair.
Whether inadvertent or misguided, government sometimes makes poor decisions, or even decisions that are not legal. The appeal process lets citizens question these decisions, and invite more public debate. If the literal price is too high, that won’t happen.
Appeals bring citizen concerns before five elected council members rather than relying upon non-elected appointees, and allows citizens to pursue matters to court. In our view, no “improvement” in the appeal process is necessary, except perhaps lowering the appeal fee to $100 on minor decisions, like fence height exceptions.