The recent release of Measure B campaign filings makes one thing clear: A lot of money was spent for one little ballot measure.
In fact, Larry Barnett, who spearheaded Measure B, said he can’t recall a costlier political fight in Sonoma’s history.
His group, “Preserving Sonoma,” raised just over $60,000 during the last calendar year, and that includes a $25,000 loan (later forgiven, so essentially a donation) made by the Barnetts themselves.
On the other side, “Protect Sonoma,” a group formed to kill Measure B, raised about $135,600, according to campaign filings.
Had it won, Measure B would have limited new hotels to 25 rooms, and kept existing ones from expanding past 25 rooms, unless the city reached an annual occupancy rate of 80 percent – a highly unlikely occurrence. But in a special election held last November, following a bitter political debate, the measure lost by just 124 votes.
On Monday, Barnett described his goal as “Essentially to reestablish a more resident-centric set of policies as opposed to visitor-centric set of policies.” He said those policies should reflect “desires of the people who want to live here, as opposed to the people who want to invest here.”
He used Carmel as a cautionary tale, saying that city’s residents “let the market forces dictate the nature of their future,” resulting in a place “not at all relevant or centric to the residents.”
Ultimately, he said, “It’s a matter of balance. And there’s a lot of us who feel that the balance has been at risk.”
That’s why he formed Preserving Sonoma – and why, in January, the group’s treasurer (his wife Norma Barnett) filed with the city in order to change the group’s status from a “ballot committee” to a “general purpose committee.”
That means that going forward, “We can take a position on any matters that come up, including city council elections, and other kinds of issues that we deem of significance,” said Barnett, who was himself a Sonoma council member from 1994 to 2006. He called his group a “political action committee representing residents.”
As for Protect Sonoma, that group, having won the election, closed out its account the day after Christmas. But most of its members, including campaign manager Nancy Simpson, are still around in the town where they grew up.
Simpson, who is chair of the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission and co-owner with her husband of Simpson Wine Partners, said she joined more than a dozen other local residents to defeat Measure B because it’s “bad for our community.”
She said her group’s money came not only from Chateau Sonoma Hotel Group LLC – the development interest run by Darius Anderson, but also “from the community, individual contributions from our supporters of No on Measure B.”
Anderson is the managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Index-Tribiune.
Campaign filings by Protect Sonoma show a mix of funding sources, with tens of thousands of dollars from Chateau Sonoma in the form of “campaign consultant fees and expenses” or other material help, but also donations of hundreds and thousands of dollars from individual donors, either in cash or support.
“We would have much rather taken all of that and put it into a nonprofit situation here in the town – the swimming pool, a dog park, something like that that really increases our quality of life on a day-to-day basis,” Simpson said. “But this is how it was presented to the community, and I don’t think we really had a choice in it.”
Simpson acknowledged that a portion of the group’s money went to pay her own salary as campaign manager, because “I’m not in a position to just take eight months off.” She also said she was “villainized for that,” but added she’s “never worked for Darius Anderson before, or any of those people.”
As for Barnett, she said, “He’s made his money, so now he can just sit back and relax. I’m not in that position.”
What motivated both sides, and how their campaigns were conducted, are subjects of ongoing dispute, with plenty of bad blood in evidence. According to Barnett, “Protect Sonoma was basically created by the hotel developer to protect its interests.” He also accused the group of sending out mailings that were “misleading, misrepresentative and in some ways completely dishonest.”
But Simpson counters that her group merely laid out the facts, adding, “It’s clear that the people who knew both sides of that conversation, when they heard both sides and they understood it, they voted no.”
She bemoaned the personal attacks she suffered during the campaign, especially those posted on sonomavalley.patch.com, where bloggers “said a lot of things about a lot of people that weren’t true.” She added that Barnett “doesn’t take responsibility for that, because he, Larry Barnett, didn’t personally write it.”
“I’ve tried to let go of all the emotion,” Simpson said.