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Valley Forum: Michael Coleman bids farewell to Sonoma Planning Commission

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I’m writing this for all the future Sonomans who are considering apply for the city commissions during the application period for new appointments.

Here is a recap of my experience and events with the process of applying for the Sonoma Planning Commission two years ago -- wherein I first applied and was then humiliated by the very people in position of power.

Councilmembers Rachel Hundley and Gary Edwards questioned then-Mayor David Cook’s planning-commission nomination of me: a firefighter without planning experience, qualifications or a degree in urban planning. I do not recall a “criteria of qualifications” to apply for the Planning Commission position. Mayor Cook followed Sonoma municipal code 2.40.100 to select someone of his choice to fill what was then a vacant seat on the commission. He made it clear he did not want lawyers, architects or the usual “good ol’ boy” network of connected candidates. I can only assume David had been a part of the Sonoma politics long enough to know what he was talking about.

Gary Edwards at the first opportunity requested that the vote on whether to ratify my appointment should be removed in order for the Mayor to consider a more qualified candidate. “Ouch.” And Hundley seconded that motion, “double ouch”! So much for applying to volunteer on the commission as a regular citizen with no connections. The gloves were off and I was out in the spotlight through no fault of my own. My only so-called “lack of qualification” was that I did not possess a degree in urban planning. My employment experience was working for the building trades in San Francisco for 30 years. Later I joined the San Francisco Fire Department.

Now, I realize urban planning is not part of my background, but once I joined the Planning Commission, I immediately jumped head on to my new role in order to learn as much as possible. It was my duty to learn from my mentors on the commission; I also received advice from Planning Director David Goodison and city staff. I don’t think a degree should be a litmus test to determine if someone is qualified to even entertain taking on a role as a member of a city commission. The last time I checked, colleges don’t hand out degrees in common sense. Unfortunately, common sense ain’t so common, and a college degree has a habit of “diminished return” these days. Like Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Speaking of sense, I tried to wrap my brain around why the next mayor, Rachel Hundley, decided not to reappoint Ron Wellender to another term on the Planning Commission. Here’s a person who appeared “a-political” and well prepared in his decision making. This college-educated Mayor set off a domino effect of resignations, friction within the City Council, and delays in new appointments for new Commissioners. Our skeleton crew that was left to carry on, in my view, felt abandoned, cheated and neutered of any real effectiveness. Now the Council has reshaped the commission-selection process. The more “democratic process” which had stood the test of time has now been politicized and replaced, in my opinion, with applicants more likely to do the bidding of the council member who chose them.

I’m reminded of Councilmember Amy Harrington’s remarks about her disappointment that Sonoma for a long time had an all-white male planning commission. When given the chance against the pool of applicants to create a more diverse commission that reflected our fine city, all the councilmembers’ individual appointments were white males. It is puzzling to hear a Council member cry gender inequality and racism, then when given the opportunity to really make a statement, it lands with a thud.

I don’t believe elected officials should pit fellow applicant qualifications against one another when applying for a commission. Possessing a degree shouldn’t entitle you to an elitist club that need not apply if you don’t possess one. If that were the case then the average citizen wouldn’t even bother to apply lest they be shamed for not having one. Having the courage to take on local politics and not even get paid for it should count for something, as well. Desire and determination, strong work ethic, ability to listen to concerns and find compromise that eventually bridges dreams into reality, are the hallmarks of a qualified volunteer. Will Rogers said, “Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects.” And that applies to this volunteer position as well.

In closing, my short stint on the Planning Commission allowed me to meet some of the most interesting people in our town. Developers, homeowners, business owners and everyday citizens from all walks of life. I was allowed to peek into the inner workings of the wheels of progress in Sonoma and I will always be grateful for the experience.

I chose not to reapply to the Commission to continue what I believe became a true calling for me, for the new paradigm left a sour taste in my mouth. And new doors are opening up for me that I intend to pursue.

I believe our new Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti will serve us well and regardless of the negative experience for me personally I wish for nothing but success for all the Council members. I also congratulate and wish best of luck to new and returning Planning Commissioners.

As for the article Jason Walsh wrote about me in the early days of my appointment – “Mr. Coleman Goes to Sonoma,” in reference to Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – perhaps the “Comeback Kid” might be the movie better suited for me in real life. Who knows? Happy New Year!

Michael Coleman is a Sonoma resident and former City of Sonoma Planning Commissioner, 2015 – 2017.