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Sonoma City Council at odds over Planning Commission


The status of the Sonoma Planning Commission remains in flux, while several significant downtown development proposals are charging through the pipeline.

That was where things stood at the end of the April 17 Sonoma City Council meeting, in which city officials considered a pair of separate Planning Commission issues – both hinging on the city’s procedural method that gives the mayor significant sway in the city’s Planning Commission appointments.

Planning Commission appointments may sound like a wonky topic, but the Monday meeting saw no shortage of residents eager to chime in on how the city should shape what some consider its most influential board – and whether Mayor Rachel Hundley’s recent commission maneuvers were a case of overreach.

Or, as meeting attendee Joe Aaron framed it, “We’re seeing a direct attempt to hijack the democratic process.”

At the crux of the issue is the City’s procedure for filling vacant seats on the seven-member Planning Commission.

Currently, vacant commission seats are filled after applicants are interviewed by a City Council subcommittee consisting of the mayor and one other council member. Following the interviews, the mayor brings one nominee forward for full Council consideration and a vote. Adding to the mayor’s Planning Commission gravitas is the decision of whether or not to reappoint commissioners when their terms are up.

In recent months there’s been a flurry of Planning Commission changes, with two members being termed out, Mayor Hundley’s decision not to reappoint Commissioner Ron Wellender, the subsequent resignation of Commissioner Chip Roberson in protest, and Hundley’s controversial nomination of Commissioner James Bohar who, his critics say, may hold a bias against the upcoming First Street East Project.

On Monday, the Council was set to consider Hundley’s nomination of Lynda Corrado to a vacant seat on the Commission. But, as things have tended to be regarding the Planning Commission of late, Corrado’s path to city service would be a rocky one. That much was evident by the first public commenter of the evening, former City Councilmember Ken McTaggart, who, in the first of several instances during the meeting in which he skirted the boundaries of meeting decorum, “begged” Hundley to “be a little less lethal” in her decisions before challenging her to a public debate over the role of the mayor in the selection of commission appointments.

It all set the scene for a lively meeting that, in light of the recent commission shakeup, came down to the question of whether the Mayor holds too much leverage over appointments.

Local resident Fred Allebach said he was satisfied with the Commission moves the Mayor had made, but called McTaggert’s line of questioning a “perfect example of the kind of circus atmosphere surrounding (applicants to) the Commission” that can prevent qualified candidates from stepping forward.

Referring to Corrado’s qualifications being vetted in a public forum, Allebach wondered, “Who’s going to risk a ‘You’re fired!’” just by applying to serve on a commission.

Several people spoke to the nominee’s fairmindedness; Corrado herself gave an overview of her background as a U.S. sailing judge and project manager for construction with AT&T.

Former councilmember and current chair of the Community Services and Environment Commission Ken Brown noted the plethora of unfilled seats on city commissions.

“I implore you to get going and come to a decision” about how the appointment process would proceed, said Brown.

Unfortunately for Corrado, the one decision the Council came to about the Commission that night was that she would not be appointed to it.

Despite Hundley’s insistence that Corrado was the best applicant for the job – as well as Councilmember Amy Harrington’s plea to add a second woman to the Commission – Corrado’s bid failed by a 2-3 vote, as councilmembers David Cook, Madolyn Agrimonti and Gary Edwards all expressed a desire to re-examine the commission-appointing process – which the Council would consider later in the meeting – before considering an appointment of the Mayor’s nominee.

Later in the meeting, the Council addressed reworking the procedures for commission appointments. Councilmember Cook, who earlier in the month had requested the process be re-evaluated, described the mayor-nominee paradigm as having “plagued Sonoma for some time” and called the process “out of date.”

Cook himself had been the subject of a Planning Commission appointment challenge back in 2015 when he, as Mayor, nominated an applicant – current commissioner Mike Coleman – whose qualifications were questioned by Hundley and Edwards.

City Manager Cathy Capriola on Monday laid out three typical scenarios that cities use to appoint Planning Commissioners.

One is a mayor-driven model much like Sonoma’s current method, though, she said, that model is more typical in cities that directly elect a mayor.

Another option is that each of the five city council members appoint a person to the seven-member Planning Commission, with appointees to the two remaining seats being voted upon by the City Council.

A third option is for all commission applicants be interviewed by the entire council who then discuss and vote on the appointee at a public meeting.

In the end, the Council asked staff to return later in the spring with alternative options for a new commission-appointment model, but not before Councilmember Cook heard a couple of sharp public comments about his consistency on the issue.

“David, why weren’t you (interested in) changing the process when you were mayor?” asked Chris Petlock. “It’s just bad taste… it’s rude.”

Kelso Barnett raised a similar point.

“Two years ago, Councilmembers Edwards and Councilmember Hundley wanted to change the (Planning Commission appointment) process – and you didn’t,” Barnett said, addressing Cook. “You said it was one of the few ‘perks’ of being the mayor.”

But Cook held fast that the appointment process is “broken.”

“Since we’re going down memory lane,” said Cook, “when I was mayor we had a lot of commission (seats) coming up and I was horrified.”

Cook said all the Planning Commission brouhaha at the time “ruined my mayor year.”

“This isn’t hypocritical,” said Cook. “It’s a problem.”

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.