Shake-up on city's Planning Commission

In a surprise development on the eve of a much-anticipated City of Sonoma Planning Commission hearing, Commissioner Chip Roberson submitted his letter of resignation from the commission this week, effective immediately. The reason he gave, in a letter to Planning Department Director David Goodison, was the non-renewal of fellow commissioner Ron Wellander’s appointment to the seven-member commission.

“I really don’t know how to put this into words but in light of recent developments,” reads the letter, “I feel that I can no longer serve on the commission. While I have had my disagreements with the City Council in the past… the decision not to nominate Commissioner Wellander for his second term was a final straw for me.”

Wellander, at the end of his first two-year term, was serving this year as vice-chair, behind James Cribb. Planning commissioners are nominated by the Mayor, and approved by the full City Council. Term lengths vary – the first term is two years, a second term is four years, and a third term is two years.

Wellander said he was contacted by City Clerk Rebekah Barr early last week to set up a meeting with Mayor Rachel Hundley to discuss his role, and expected a renomination. Wellander, Hundley and City Councilmember Amy Harrington – who joined the Mayor on the two-person committee for selecting members of the Planning Commission – met on Wednesday afternoon, March 15, for about 20 minutes.

During that conversation, Wellander recalled, "the Mayor asked me if I had come to any decision” on three significant projects the city is facing – the affordable housing project at 20269 Broadway, the Hotel Sonoma Project on West Napa, and the First Street East mixed-use development – which is on Planning Commission March 23 agenda.

“I told them I had not," said Wellander. "I have not received all the information on the projects and have not reached a decision.”

Hundley remembers the interview differently. "There were never any questions about what people’s opinions were. We asked if people had taken a public stance on things, because we were trying to find people who weren’t going on the record about projects that were coming up.

“None of this was about any particular slant toward projects, it was about finding people who would be good on the Planning Commission and make a good General Plan,” she said referring to the expected general plan update later this year.

Several days later on Tuesday, March 21, Wellander said he had a phone conversation with Hundley when she told him he was not being renominated. However since he would still be an official member of the commission until a replacement was appointed, he was eligible to attend the March 23 meeting as a commissioner.

Wellander declined, choosing not to spend the preparation time on a role he would no longer be playing.

Roberson's reasons for leaving the commission are different. He has served for over seven years, and was in his final term when he resigned.

“Through my whole term,” Roberson told the Index-Tribune, “I have never felt any kind of pressure from city council to act one way or the other, that I always felt that I could be there as a representative of the community, to listen to all those who come forward to speak, to interpret the city code and the city plan, and act accordingly.”

He repeated that his concern was over the “politicization” of the Commission. “From my perspective, the seven years that I’ve been on, the PC has been a very apolitical organization… We never felt that we had to look over our shoulder and determine whether or not we are serving some interest on the City Council.

“What I fear is that, moving forward, any new commissioner is going to be worried that, ‘Well, if I don’t vote a certain way I’m going to lose my position.’

“That’s not how this commission has operated,” said Roberson.

Ironically, James Bohar was appointed as an alternate to the Planning Commission at the recent March 20 City Council meeting. In his application for the position, Bohar gave his job experience as a “commercial real estate industrial broker in the East Bay.” He has lived in Sonoma full time for five years.

With Roberson’s resignation, Bohar was expected to become a commissioner at the Planning Commission’s March 23 meeting, leap-frogging the alternate stage to become a commissioner. On the agenda tonight is a consideration of a hotel/residential development on First Street East.

Hundley told the Index-Tribune she didn’t think it was necessary to follow the tradition of reappointing members to successive terms, which is why she decided to find someone else for the commission. She thought the commission needed more diversity to grapple with the commercial and residential development challenges the city is facing.

She and Councilmember Harrington had been interviewing candidates for the open Commission Alternate job, which came open when Robert McDonald stepped up from alternate to replace termed-out Bob Felder earlier this year.

Their selection will be announced at the next City Council meeting, April 3.

Regarding her decision not to re-nominate Wellander, Hundley said, “I’ve noticed different mayors have different philosophies.” She pointed out that the Council would soon be engaged in a re-evaluation of the General Plan.

Though she expressed appreciation for Wellander’s service to the City and his time on the Planning Commission and other city committees, Hundley felt it was time to apply a different philosophy.

Also in his second year of an initial two-year term is Michael Coleman, who was appointed by then-Mayor David Cook in April 2015. At the time, Hundley had opposed Coleman’s nomination to the commission, questioning his appointment when more qualified candidates had applied. One of the applicants at the time, coincidentally, was Harrington.

According to the City of Sonoma’s website, sonomacity.org, “The Planning Commission prepares, revises and implements the comprehensive long-term General Plan for the physical development of the City and surrounding areas.”

Neither Wellander nor Roberson planned to attend the March 23 meeting, but Goodison confirmed that it would be held, as a quorum of five would be present – including newly-named alternate/commissioner Bohar.

"I feel as if I am being played out like a political pawn,” said Wellender, “and I'm not particularly comfortable with that."

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.