Mayor Brown switches leaf-blower vote

Sonoma Mayor Ken Brown, who on Sunday was honored by an Amistad (Friendship) Award for service to the Hispanic community, had an about-face epiphany Monday night and, with a room full of landscape workers watching, changed his support for a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers and provided the third vote needed to kill the ordinance most observers assumed would be adopted.

In reversing course, Brown candidly acknowledged that the Amistad Award, given by Nuestra Voz, a Sonoma Valley nonprofit promoting leadership in the Latino community, influenced his vote.

“There is a grace period between the first and second reading of the ordinance. I had time to reflect … And I definitely feel that winning the Amistad Award was a part of it,” he said.

On Oct. 7, the council voted 3-to-2 to approve the first reading of an ordinance banning all leaf blowers powered by internal combustion engines, but allowing for continued use of electric leaf blowers.

At the time, Brown announced, “I’m not prepared tonight for a ban on all types of leaf blowers, but I will support a gas ban …”

He then voted to break a 2-2 tie, with Councilmembers Steve Barbose and Laurie Gallian in favor of the ban while Mayor Pro Tem Tom Rouse and Councilmember David Cook were opposed, preferring to put the issue to a public vote on a future general election ballot.

Brown’s turn-around was a personal defeat for Sonoma screenwriter and novelist Darryl Ponicsan, who has a backyard office and has described leaf blowers as a “clear and present nuisance” that generate “raucous, nerve-wracking noise. ”

But after the vote, Ponicsan said that Brown’s Monday night reversal was foreshadowed by a conversation he had with the mayor the previous week. According to Ponicsan, Brown told him, “I’m being pummeled” by landscapers and roofers.

But reflecting on his change of heart the next day, Brown insisted, “I related to the audience last night. Like them, I’m blue collar, I live paycheck to paycheck … There is a class issue here and my sympathies are always with the people at the bottom end of the class structure. These are fantastic citizens and citizens-to-be.”

Brown insisted no one directly pressured him to change his vote. “I was not pressured or approached by any of the landscapers,” he said. “This was not some sort of corporate power move. And I was not contacted by the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce … I really did have an epiphany.”

Brown also described receiving an emailed message from Sonoma minister James J. Rawls, encouraging him and other council members to practice “moral imagination,” defined as “standing in the shoes of a stakeholder and asking how a proposed decision will affect that stakeholder.”

Echoed Brown, “The more I put myself in their position (the landscapers), the more (the ban) didn’t feel right.”

Ponicsan, who spent more than nine months doggedly urging the council to address the ban, circulating petitions, researching the issue and asking anyone who would listen to pay attention to the noise and negative health effects of gas blowers, said the next day he was through with his campaign.

“I’m worn out,” he said Tuesday. “I view it as an exercise in futility.”

But Ponicsan later amended that sentiment to announce that his wife Cicelia, wasn’t yet ready to throw in the towel, and might lend her support to an effort to place the issue on a future ballot.

He added that he hoped one positive outcome from the campaign could be that the Sonoma Valley Unified School District will follow through on a promise made when the ban seemed imminent.

School district property would have been exempt from the ban, but Ponicsan said superintendent Louann Carlomagno earlier assured him she had already directed that gas-powered leaf blowers not be used by landscapers at district schools.

“I wish I could be sure that will happen,” he said.