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Jason Walsh: How are city agendas formed? It’s a topic worth talking about...

Today, I’ll be considering whether to eventually write about the Sonoma City Council’s policy in which they ponder an issue before firmly deciding to discuss it.

If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. But as convoluted as it initially seems, it’s at the heart of how many cities’ decisions come to be, including Sonoma’s.

And many a city decision comes down to the wonky nature of city council agendas – the council members’ list of issues to grapple with at their twice-monthly public meetings. Which, on the list of interesting things to the average Sonoman, probably falls somewhere below watching the latest slurry seal on the east side. But its importance can’t be understated: the council agenda is a point-in-time reflection of the city’s current priorities. Or, put it this way – leaf blowers didn’t dominate countless hours of city time by accident – a council member had to ask for it to be placed on the agenda. Three years and little else later, a lot of people were asking – how did the leaf blower thing ever happen?

And the simple answer is: because it was on the council agenda. And it wouldn’t go away.

That very question – the question of how three hours of a meeting agenda is set every first and third Monday of the month – was on the tips of more than a few tongues Aug. 14. That’s when the marquee item on the city’s meeting agenda was the “discussion, consideration and possible action” to “schedule a council discussion” to review a city contract with the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau.

For those of you still reading – and thank you for your patience, all three of you – as per city policy, the council was discussing whether to schedule a discussion of the contract. That’s right, they were discussing discussing it. It seems there’s a little known ordinance – Resolution No. 25 from 2011 you may recall – which requires that in order for a council member to have a specific item appear on a council agenda they must first have it green lit by a majority of the council.

And, yes, for those of us who have mocked the libertarian supposition that all government is an exercise in futility – our city is in flames.

Not surprisingly, some meeting attendees found all this discussing about discussing, well, something worth talking about.

Former councilmember Larry Barnett, for one, longed for the halicon days of yesteryear when, to borrow from “All in the Family,” girls were girls, men were men -- and city policy “respected the people that were elected.”

“We didn’t have the rule you have (now),” said Barnett. “(If a council person wanted it), it was on the agenda – it didn’t require a council (vote) about whether to discuss something.”

Barnett then called for someone on the council to ask to have it placed on the discussion agenda for a possible future discussion.

Resident Chris Petlock seemed flabbergasted at the existence of any city agendas at all.

“Month after month the agenda is full – how does all this stuff get on the agenda?” he asked with the kind of amazement typically reserved for such times as when David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear. “It doesn’t seem to be coming from you, because we never see you discussing it.”

Those questions are quite valid – especially the seeming rigmarole of considering whether to consider an issue. Like in Monday’s case of the Visitors Bureau contract – a little bit of innocent “considerations” resulted in a lot of resolute determinations about the Visitors Bureau, which wasn’t intended on the agenda. That’ll all happen for a second time in the next go ‘round. Whether hashing out an issue twice is a big saving of Council time is open for debate.

What isn’t, however, is Resolution 25’s exponentially greater saving in city staff time – and thus taxpayer dollars.

Resolution 25 is in effect a gatekeeper of the city agenda – like a call screener on an NPR talk show. It’s there to keep the loonies at bay. Or, to put it another way, it exists to keep elected officials from being able to agendize on a whim.

One could ask: Why shouldn’t my elected official be able to address an issue she/he feels is of community concern?

First, because it’s not all about you, Mr. Elected Official. Nor is it about your relatively small political base those agendized whims may be trying to please.

The discussion before the real discussion of city issues is in place to ensure that a majority of the City Council thinks one member’s concern is relevant enough to warrant multiple meetings and potentially thousands of dollars in staff time researching an issue.

And these council discussions-before-the-discussion happen all the time. Council members will often request future agenda topics during regular public meetings about other issues, or in the midst of official motions, which are ultimately approved, or not, by a council majority. The council’s yearly goal-setting meetings are ripe with agenda suggestions by individual council members which, when approved by the council, are fair game for future agendas.

And then there’s the stuff that crops up unexpectedly and a council member formally requests to discuss it. Recent examples include a response to the federal crackdown on undocumented residents and revisions to the city policies on commission appointments. Whether one agrees with the ultimate direction, few would argue the relevance of those debates.

But not all issues are of equal worth and a cautious approach before committing the city to many hours and dollars on low-priority concerns can be costly.

City Manager Cathy Capriola is charged with putting together the agendas for the council meetings. And she says one of the first things she did when starting her job at the end of last year was to ensure all five council members were familiar with the terms of Resolution 25.

She says she’s seen cities have problems with overzealous council members before.

“You can have a council member who’s interested in adding new things routinely – but every item on the agenda requires a majority to take action on. Everything takes staff time,” she says. “As an organization we need to be agile and recognize things come up, but if you’re doing that routinely we can’t concentrate on things the council has prioritized.”

And what if the council’s priorities are out of whack?

Well, that’s a discussion for another day.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.