The death and rebirth of Sonoma
For a few weeks after statehood, Sonoma's civic government maintained the role of the Alcalde, a Spanish office brought to the new world from cities and towns in Mexico.
When the two incumbent City Councilmembers Ken Brown and Steve Barbose, along with newly-elected Tom Rouse, are sworn in to office on Wednesday to join the city's two female council members, Joanne Sanders and Laurie Gallian, the city government will be far different from that which existed in 1850 when California became a state, following the Mexican War.
For a few weeks after statehood, Sonoma's civic government maintained the role of the Alcalde, a Spanish office brought to the new world from cities and towns in Mexico. The Alcalde was a combination mayor, judge, tax collector and land title recorder with a portfolio of duties. Under Mexican rule after 1835, Mariano G. Vallejo would make sure there was an Alcalde elected by adult citizens for the Sonoma "sector," which would stretch as far as Sutter's Fort in the east and north theoretically to the Oregon border.
During the period 1847-1852, California was overseen by the U.S. Army. In 1847, the military governor sent William Tecumseh Sherman to Sonoma to arrest the locally-elected Alcalde, John H. Nash, cart him off to Monterey, and install Lilburn Boggs, former Governor of Missouri, in his place.
Gen. Persifor Smith moved his West Coast military headquarters to Sonoma in 1849, and set up shop in the Fitch House at the corner of West Napa and First Street West across from the Plaza until 1852.
Chartered by the legislature and starting with statehood in 1850, Sonoma was governed as an official town with three elected Trustees. The first mayor was John Cameron, a veteran of the occupying Stevenson's Regiment of recruited New Yorkers. That system lasted only until 1861.
A sharpie San Francisco lawyer named A. A. Green filed a legal action claiming the Trustees had failed to get a court order obtaining clear title to properties traceable to Vallejo's alleged title granted by the Mexican government. Vallejo's original map covered downtown Sonoma and the surrounding 20 square miles. Unlikely as it seemed, if Greene were successful, hundreds of people could lose title to homes, shops and farms, or spend a fortune to protect their homesteads.
Panic swept the Valley.
This public fear was not necessarily misplaced paranoia. At the same time, a man named David Jacks parlayed small amounts owed by the City of Monterey through buying judgments, and quietly and successfully foreclosed judgments to acquire 60,000 acres in and around Monterey.
Gen. Vallejo's solution was to ride off to the state capital in Sacramento and convince friends in the legislature to enact a revocation of the Sonoma City Charter, so there was no city government and no Board of Trustees to sue or be forced to take action. As it turned out, the cure was worse than the disease. There was no official authority to repair muddy streets, buy fire equipment (a commercial block of Napa Street burned down in 1866), the Plaza deteriorated and was marred by a railroad roundtable, and a plan to have the Society of California Pioneers restore the Plaza and build a public center was abandoned by 1880.
After two decades of unincorporated anarchy, a committee petitioned the legislature to authorize a referendum for reincorporation, which won by a three-to-one margin. Sonoma was officially reborn on Sept. 3, 1882. But during the municipal hiatus the size of the official town had shrunk to only a square mile covering the center of the original city.
Since then there have been limited requests for annexation of specific parcels, adopted by the five-member city council only after public debate and evidence of justification. The last major annexations were of Maxwell Village by popular vote, and Armstrong Estates following campaigns pro and con. Proposals for expanding Sonoma to include Boyes Hot Springs, El Verano, Agua Caliente and other Valley unincorporated communities have failed by referendum or been withdrawn.
Between 1906 and 1907 the city built its two-story City Hall with a tower, diplomatically with four identical sides so that no shopping block facing the Hall was favored. An effort in 1977 to move the civic center was defeated by a referendum. At the same time the voters approved new law enforcement facilities and a street-level combination courtroom and council chambers to be constructed on First Street West. The historic City Hall was preserved, and eventually offices in that building improved and expanded and an elevator installed.
Although Californians authorized the vote for women in 1916, three years before the Constitutional amendment giving them the right, Sonoma's first female mayor was Joan McGrath Waterhouse, elected 40 years later by the council on April 17, 1956.
She served four consecutive years. Once that "glass ceiling" was shattered, Waterhouse was followed by Nancy Parmelee, who served as mayor on three separate occasions, Jeanne Markson, Valerie Brown, Phyllis Carter (twice) and Joanne Sanders.
Starting in 1980, a new informal protocol has limited the mayorship to one year without immediate re-election. Previously, mayors had commonly served two to four years, and on a couple of occasions as long as eight consecutive years. Members of the City Council, including the mayor, are paid a $300 monthly stipend, have a modest expense allowance and receive free medical insurance, although some members decline the stipend or contribute it to a charitable cause. Other than that, inclusion among the Valley's historic names, like Haraszthy, Poppe, Hotz, Weyl, Picetti and Pinelli, and the satisfaction of taking part in the improvement of the city, seem to be rewards enough.