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Jason Walsh: Coup d’Sonoma


“Eden is burning, either getting ready for elimination / Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards” — Bob Dylan, “Changing of the Guards”

“A palace coup.”

Those were the first three words in the top email of my inbox Tuesday morning.

It had been only eight hours since the Dec. 12 Sonoma City Council had adjourned after a marathon six hour meeting that saw a passionate defense of Plaza picnic tables, shouts exchanged between a councilmember and a farmers market spokesman, and the first-ever presentation of a “golden rake” as a retirement gift to a defeated incumbent.

If you’ve never curled up in bed with a sifter of brandy and a printout of the city council meeting minutes, this would be the one with which to oil the works.

The “palace coup” comment, of course, was a reference from early on in the meeting when — following the fond farewells to the gracious former-Mayor Laurie Gallian, who lost her reelection bid in November to challenger Amy Harrington — it came time for the councilmembers to select a new Mayor. When Mayor Pro Tem Madolyn Agrimonti called for nominations, no one spoke up for the Pro Tem — who’s usually the presumed successor to the center seat at the dais, if you go by theory that the position typically elevates to Mayor as a pro forma convention. Instead, Councilmember Gary Edwards made a motion to nominate Rachel Hundley, with a second from Harrington. With Hundley’s own vote, it was clear the deal was sealed and Agrimonti and Councilmember David Cook went along, making it unanimous.

While occasionally a Mayor Pro Tem doesn’t become Mayor — the term “pro tempore” is Latin for “in absence of,” meaning the position would fill in for the Mayor if need be, but isn’t necessarily a successor — it’s usually what happens. Sonoma City Manager Carol Giovanatto can only recall one other time in her 15 years at City Hall that the Mayor Pro Tem had been passed over — about a decade ago, she says, when Joseph Costello was denied the mayoral sash.

Agrimonti should take comfort that the vote probably had less to do with her — she’s well liked among her colleagues by all appearances — than with the seeming direction of the current makeup of the council. This vote was very predictable, in fact.

The seeds of this vote were sewn a year ago in 2015 — when it was time to select a new Mayor Pro Tempore after Laurie Gallian assumed the Mayor’s seat. That’s when Edwards sidestepped a nomination of Agrimonti to instead nominate Hundley. While Agrimonti won the votes — Hundley demurred and joined the vote for Agrimonti — there was no reason to think Edwards wouldn’t repeat the nomination this go-round, only this time for Mayor. Without Agrimonti-supporter Gallian on the council, it’s no surprise the outcome leaned toward Edwards’ nominee. Edwards, as it happens, was then voted Monday as Mayor Pro Tempore — if the pro-tem returns to its typical upward trajectory next year, Edwards could be Mayor during his presumed re-election campaign.

We should point out that the role of Mayor is largely symbolic — they run the council meetings and get invited to more events and ribbon cuttings, but their vote is still one among five of the councilmembers.

Which is also why it’s notable that Sonoma went “sideways” in its Mayoral selection this year. While “palace coup” is a colorful way to put it, it’s more accurate to say a change of direction is taking place on the council — possibly from one of caution and status quo toward more activism and revision. But we’ll see; it’s all guesswork after only one meeting. What’s clear is that the words “tourism,” “city character” and “housing” are becoming frequent motifs in council discussions — and that wasn’t necessarily the case a year ago this time.

For her part, Agrimonti is taking it with a grain of salt.

“There’s a lot of history … and the majority rules on this — and there’s a new majority on the council,” Agrimonti said this week by phone.

She predicted the new council will work well together, nonetheless.

“For those who voted for me and supported me, they assumed I would transition into the Mayor seat,” she said. “I’m sad that that did not happen and I am sorry.”

Perhaps David Cook said it best at around 11:30 p.m. Monday night, as the council considered street-closure requests from the Wine Country Half Marathon, at the close of its longest meeting in two years.

“The people spoke, we had an election — we lost an incumbent,” said Cook. “People want their town back.”

He described Sonoma as a tourism “mecca.”

“We can’t stop it,” Cook said. “But we can put the brakes on it.”

In that, Cook may have summed up what the “palace coup” was really about.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.