Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Playing the patsy

Posted on November 1, 2021 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Cities like Sonoma have a variety of regulatory tools available to ensure that as major development occurs, not just the developer benefits.

The physical development of a city is all but permanent. But not the same can be said of community benefits; one-time fees or application-related revenues generally provide no long-term lasting value to the city as a whole, and property taxes contribute only a small percentage of local revenues.

How is it that other cities can enjoy revenues sufficient to create recreational centers, parks, and other public amenities, while the City of Sonoma is unable to do so? The answer is fairly simple: developers are getting off cheap. Sonoma repeatedly fails to exercise its regulatory authority to impose exactions and special fees on major development and instead, repeatedly plays the patsy.

Playing the patsy is when a party to a transaction is easily manipulated or victimized; in other words, a pushover. When some of America’s largest corporations “cry poor” while at the same time asking the City of Sonoma for a favor, financial help, or forgiveness, and when the city gives in, it’s playing the patsy. When mega-wealthy sue the city in an effort to bully and intimidate it and the city settles, it’s playing the patsy. Such behavior sends a message to those who want to exploit the community: push hard enough or whine like a petulant child and you’ll get what you want. 

The city’s existing land use regulations form a legal suit of armor, and they exist to protect the city body from harm. Adept lawyers look for weaknesses and cracks in the armor, and then develop strategies to exploit them. That’s no surprise; the business world plays hardball, but the City of Sonoma plays softball. It’s time for Sonoma to change its game.

A common refrain among politicians is to “run government like a business.” But competent CEO’s don’t consistently allow themselves to be bullied and out-negotiated. A city government certainly shouldn’t.

Exactions, for example, are standard part of city business. Particularly useful when an applicant asks for a waiver, exemption, or favor, the imposition of an exaction — the funding of a little park, say, or contribution to the housing fund — can deliver continuing benefits to the entire community. To be blunt, the city holds certain cards. Why not ask, what’s in it for us? 

An instructive example is the fee imposed by the city in response to MacArthur Place’s request for a waiver from the housing requirement so it could build more rooms. MacArthur Place Hotel is owned by JP Morgan Chase, a Wall Street bank with a $333 billion market valuation. When it comes to paying a housing waiver fee to support the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, JP Morgan can afford it — and they’ll end up passing the one-time $100,000 per room fee along to guests, anyway. 

An exaction — which isn’t punitive, it’s just good business — is rare in Sonoma. Why? Unless they become more common, the city will continue to have to cry poor. 

The City of Sonoma is a treasure, and the corporate world is eager to get its hands on it. For too long now the city has been giving more than it gets, dealing with companies that socialize their costs while privatizing their profits. Our residents deserve better, and we believe they will support policies and regulations that begin to deliver the goods. Sonoma has played the patsy long enough.


— Sonoma Sun Editorial Board


3 thoughts on “Playing the patsy

  1. Treasure! In the state of California there are few cities with a Plaza! Most of California was developed without them. Sonoma has a unique history as the location of the Bear Flag Rebellion. Not too mention the birthplace of the wine industry. And the last Mission. Every time I drive into Sonoma, I am awed at the physical beauty. Let’s get tough and negotiate hard for benefits which are lasting and improve the quality of life for the residents. Play hard ball.

  2. What a joke developers get off cheap. As having been involved in four major developments over the last 22 years the problem is and has always been the city ‘fathers’ who truly have zero idea on how to manage, attract, and NURTURE, developments.

    Been here since a kid, now 70, and NOTHING has changed.

  3. I asked a former Sonoma City Manager why Sonoma didn’t have a community recreation center or community pool. The city could raise the funds with a bond issue. I live in Livonia, Michigan and we raised money years ago to fund a community recreation center used by all ages. It has exercise equipment, pools, meeting rooms and many amenities. I didn’t receive a satisfactory answer. Sonoma has lots of wealth but surprisingly not much new has been added in many years for the residents.

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