Jason Walsh: Picking up the Community Fund Grant pieces

“So soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.” – Abraham Lincoln

The Sonoma City Council indicated a unanimous reversal this week in its preferred method of doling out community grant funding – an about face that demonstrates an encouraging sign of wanting-to-get-things-right from a still-somewhat-newish collective of town poobahs.

It’s also a demonstration of a willingness to listen to the community and city staff – and tacitly acknowledge a misjudgment in the interests of improving a city program.

After a unanimous vote last June to approve the revised Community Fund Grant program disbursement of $174,000 among 13 nonprofits, the Council took a second look at the new program on Monday and all five voiced their support for scaling the program back to a model closer to what it had been for many years prior – funneling the bulk of the funds toward the three or four local organizations that offer “core recreation services” in lieu of an established city parks and recreation department. Council members were in agreement – though no official vote was taken March 20 – that formally contracting with nonprofits such as Vintage House senior center and the Sonoma Community Center for certain P&R-type services to the community made sense.

The issue boiled down to two questions: What are the “core recreation services” a typical city provides? And which Sonoma Valley nonprofits offer such services in lieu of the City? In the past, the not-exactly-perfect answer had been a total of four nonprofits: the Sonoma Community Center, the Boys and Girls Clubs, Vintage House and the Sonoma Ecology Center.

But last year, the new program – a competitive system where all Valley nonprofits could lobby for a share of the grant funds – spread the wealth beyond most cities’ shared understanding of “core recreation services.” Among the recipients of support were organizations of immense value – but dubious as P&R programs. Is child bereavement counseling a typical city service? What about a railroad-history project? It certainly begs the question.

City Manager Cathy Capriola stressed the difference between a city which funds outside vendors for city services and a city acting as a community foundation. The council members – even Mayor Rachel Hundley who spearheaded last year’s competitive grant model – agreed.

The reason this change of heart is important goes beyond simply having a justifiable nonprofit-funding model – although that’s certainly necessary.

But it lends confidence that, if the Council intends to be a more proactive one than in recent years – it also needs to be ready to concede to the occasional stumble, and redirect.

Such traits will be key in fostering community support when the Council toys with other established paradigms – such as the upcoming dueling farmers market models that will be ripe for community feedback later this spring.

Knowing that the council is open to reversing course when new and innovative ideas don’t pan out as planned, will ultimately lead to a better level of trust and a longer leash from the community when it comes to Council ambitions going forward.

And, given that a city General Plan update is close on the horizon, that trust is precisely what the Council should be seeking.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.