Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


The importance of institutional memory

Posted on October 1, 2022 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The City of Sonoma’s government faces an unprecedented situation: the loss of institutional memory. Institutional memory cannot be found in meeting minutes; it is the recollection of history in the minds of staff and elected officials. That recollection is of events, problems and solutions that occurred in the past; in other words, how we’ve arrived at where we are today.

The impending retirement of Building Department Head Wayne Wirick, who has worked for the city for 40 years, symbolizes the problem. His retirement, coupled with the planned retirement of the City Planner, and the upcoming hiring of a new, permanent City Manager, means that all top-level staff will be new. The election in November of three new City Council members who will join the two current council members, each with only two years on the job, means nobody in city government will have participated or have direct experience in the historical workings of City Hall. That’s a problem.

Without institutional memory, government runs around in circles reinventing the wheel. Even with institutional memory, the Council is still trying to address the same issues  over and over again. Take parking around the Plaza, for example. Every parking study conducted over the past 30 years has uncovered the same problem, namely that Plaza business employees take up about 50% of the available parking spaces. Despite the many recommendations that have emerged from past studies, the problem persists today. A new study and Plaza master plan is under discussion, but if history is any guide, its recommendations are likely to be ignored as well.

Minutes of meetings used to contain a summary of discussions by meeting members, a short description of the way past problems were resolved. The nature of meeting minutes changed about a decade ago, when the decision was made to change to “action minutes” that simply record the votes and eliminate summaries of the discussions. While copies of council meetings survive on recordings, wading through them is something few officials have time to do. So it is that perfectly rational discussions of the past get lost, and local government goes round and round in its decision-making.

Many issues are long-term and persistent, like traffic safety, Plaza parking, preservation of open space, housing policy, city finances, recreation, tree planting, sidewalks, and creating a pedestrian-friendly city. In the past, despite City Council turnover, city staff was a repository of knowledge. Unfortunately, between resignations from the council and staff retirements and departures, we no longer can rely on having that knowledge. You know what they say about forgetting history, and being doomed to repeat it.

We suggest one solution to this loss of institutional memory that the City form a committee composed of citizens and past City Council members who collectively hold the memory of events and decisions made over the past 30 years. This committee can be consulted by government to ascertain a record of past events and decisions, their context and efficacy. Even this approach is not without its shortcomings; many of the folks who hold those memories are getting older or passing away. Many have already left us, like local history buff Robert Parmalee, and others. Let’s  begin to tap into our repository of knowledge soon and document it, before much of it is lost forever. 


2 thoughts on “The importance of institutional memory

  1. All Council meeting discussions on every agenda topic can easily be preserved “in the Cloud” in video accessible in perpetuity via the City website, with Google searches and on those computer thingies. Siri and Alexa can explain how it’s done; they’re both in the 3rd grade now.

  2. Actually, a fresh start will be good; it’s good to have new beginnings, fresh perspectives. In many ways Sonoma is ossified, stuck in the same loops. IMO it will be better to not remain attached to the past but rather to allow change and let some new folks get their hands on the steering wheel. Wipe the slate clean here and let all compete to have their voices and ideas run the City. Think of a Planning Commission with half low-income renters and how that might change things up for the greater good. A fresh start will be good for all parties, it will reinvigorate our local democracy. As we see the world over, people cling to power and control way past their times. Those concerned with the past can show up and take their three minutes or write letters; no one will stopping them.

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