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Jason Walsh: Sometimes anonymous calls aren’t all they’re cracked up to be...

Apparently “Bob” was some sort of Planning Commission groupie.

That was my initial impression of the caller when I answered my desk phone on March 20 at 4:43 p.m. from an unidentifiable out-of-area number.

I usually would ignore what was likely a long-distance PR call and go home; after all, my kid had a Little League game that evening.

But the game was a rain out. So I picked up.

“Hi,” the voice on the line said. “I’m wondering if you could give me some information on the Sonoma Planning Commission.”

“What kind of information?” I asked.

He said he’d been following the Planning Commission and was wondering if I knew anything about the commissioners being “biased” against certain development proposals.

That’s not a typical question I field at closing time on the last day of winter. So I asked his name.

“(I’d) prefer not to give a name,” he said, adding that he only wanted information on why the Planning Commission kept postponing its review of certain project proposals.

I told him I’d like to know with whom I was speaking before discussing the newspaper’s possible coverage of a city commission.

“You can call me ‘Bob,’” he said.

Bob explained that he was wondering if the Index-Tribune was working on any stories about Planning Commission bias prior to the commission’s meeting that Thursday.

He said he’d read a story we had recently published (“City Officials Endure Barrage of Legal Threats,” Feb. 20) about how Sonoma development company Caymus Capital had threatened litigation against a Sonoma City Council member and several members of the Planning Commission for their alleged biases against the firm’s projects – demanding those city officials recuse themselves from any decision making on Caymus projects.

Bob said he’d read that story and was wondering if I could share any additional information about the Sonoma planning commissioners.

I asked Bob what proposal he was interested in, and to which commissioners did he refer?

“You sure ask a lot of questions,” Bob responded.

I could see that Bob was calling from a 310 area code, so I asked him if he lived in Sonoma.

He said, no, but that he did live in Sonoma County and liked keeping tabs on local planning commissions.

“Name another city in Sonoma County,” I challenged.

No response.

I rephrased it as a question: “Can you name another city in the county in which you live?”

Pause, for about the length of time it takes to google “towns in Sonoma County.”

“Petaluma,” said Bob. “I live in Petaluma.”

Bob reiterated his interest in Sonoma Planning Commission bias.

Along with Bob’s Los Angeles-area-code phone number, my computer screen also displayed the name of a real-estate-development company from which his phone was calling.

I asked him about the company on the phone display.

No response.

I asked him if he was working on behalf of a project coming before the Sonoma Planning Commission.

No, he assured.

I told Bob I had no information to share about the planning commission, and we ended the call.

Based on the return phone number displayed, a quick web search showed that Bob had called from the phone of a real estate consultant in Los Angeles who, out of deference to his wish to be anonymous, I’ll refer to as Edward Madsen, which isn’t his real name. According to his blog, Madsen does “a significant amount of consulting around dead and dying malls.”

Hmm. I wondered if this guy was aware that “Petaluma Bob” is somehow using his phone to call members of the Bay Area press.

I called Madsen, this time on my cellphone, to inform him of the situation. No one picked up. But about a minute later, my phone rang from his number.

I answered – and acknowledged that I was the person who had just called.

“My name is Jason Walsh, I’m the editor of the Sonoma Index-Tribune,” I said. I explained that someone using the name Bob called me from his phone trying to get information about local city officials.

Pause.

I recounted the situation a second time.

“Someone called you from this phone?” Madsen demurred.

“I just had my number changed. I didn’t call you,” he insisted, in what sounded like a veiled hint that perhaps the previous owner of the phone number was the one poking around for info on Sonoma city officials.

I took a more direct approach.

“You’re Bob,” I informed him.

He protested one last time, with a half-hearted, “I don’t remember speaking to you.”

And then – perhaps sensing that not remembering whether he was Bob wasn’t going to fly – he dropped the pretense.

OK, he conceded. He was Bob.

I asked him why he was calling the media under the guise of an interested Sonoma County resident when, in reality, he was a real-estate consultant from Los Angeles.

The consultant said his anonymous call arose “from the distress of what has been happening in (Sonoma) and (to find out) actually what’s going on.”

He defended calling the newspaper under false pretenses to seek out information on the commissioners: “Don’t you ever receive anonymous calls?”

And he scoffed at my suggestion that his call to me was in any way duplicitous.

I asked him if the people for whom he was consulting were aware of “Petaluma Bob’s” phone calls to the media.

He said he was growing uncomfortable with my questions and would prefer to end the conversation.

And so I bid farewell to “Petaluma Bob.”

Anonymous phone calls notwithstanding, readers are more than welcome to bend my ear about community issues – whether they’re simply concerned residents or applicants of a project under review. But they should always be upfront about who they are and why they are calling.

I don’t always need a name, but I need to know I’m not being played. Especially in regards to the possibility of undermining the legitimacy of public officials.

Because the reality is that, behind the scenes of public meetings and open community feedback – outside the underlying promise of democracy that decisions which effect the public be determined before the public – there’s a push to lobby and influence our public officials that the average resident doesn’t see.

Much of the time it can be entirely legitimate. On some occasions, shamefully spurious.

It can come from project opponents or proponents, from one side of a community issue, or the other – oftentimes from both.

It’s about gaining access, it’s about gathering information and, occasionally, it’s about hiring lawyers. It can come as a coordinated barrage of hundreds of emails; it can come as a single threat of litigation.

It can come from a hushed whisper campaign; it can come from a loud neighborhood association.

It can certainly come from anonymous phone calls.

And, for the sake of Sonoma, we hope our public officials’ tolerance to withstand the elixir of such influence is high. Because while the efforts to shape the leanings of city leaders are immediate, the decisions they will make about Sonoma are lasting.

As for Petaluma Bob?

Whatever. I guess he’s only doing his job.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.