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Jason Walsh: Commission appointments – up close, and personal

If the Sonoma City Council is trying to bring greater transparency in its appointments to the Sonoma Planning Commission, it’s got a funny way of doing it.

That much was clear Monday, June 5 when the Council met to consider adjustments to its current appointment process.

In the current set up, the sitting mayor and another council member interview applicants – and then the mayor brings a single nomination to the full Council for ratification.

The model has resulted in some sparring in recent years over mayoral nominees that didn’t impress other members of the Council who felt frustrated at not having better options. Additionally, the process for re-appointing Commissioners whose terms expire is left solely to the Mayor – a convention that critics say lacks transparency in how a mayor decides to reappoint, or not, a sitting commissioner.

An obvious solution, of course, would be to enhance the current process and have the Mayor bring not one, but two or three nominees to the floor and the rest of the Council would have multiple options to consider for the seat. Surely one would be a decent choice that the council members would feel confident about. Same could be done when a commission term expires – the city could field applicants, if any, and the Mayor would bring one qualified challenging nominee up for consideration along with the incumbent. There would certainly be times when there were no challenges to a reappointment, but on the occasion there were, it would give the Council a chance to replace a commissioner who wasn’t a good fit.

Or, perhaps the solution is to simply make appointments like most other cities do – and as Sonoma city staff recommends – and allow the full council to review the applicants and let a majority decide the appointment.

Nevertheless, the current model needs some improvements, to be sure.

But instead of tinkering with the engine, the City Council is replacing the entire motor.

At least that appeared to be the case after the Council voted 4-1, with Councilmember Gary Edwards in the minority, to have city staff draft a revised process that would grant each council member their own individual appointment to each of the six lower city commissions – including the Planning Commission, the most influential of those bodies.

According to preliminary recommendations by city staff, the appointments – or potentially re-appointments if a councilmember so chooses – would occur annually and the individual councilmember appointments would be final, with no further vetting.

That doesn’t come across as an increase in transparency by any measure.

One commenter at the June 6 meeting made the specious argument that the process of personal appointments is the most democratic, since council members would have to answer to voters if they make poor commission selections. But that line of reasoning ignores the fact that few if any voters follow the lower commissions closely enough to be able to gauge whether a council incumbent botched his or her choice for the Traffic Safety Committee. Same can be said of the Planning Commission, despite its higher-profile stature.

Where the current model at least requires a potential appointee to get the green light from a majority on the City Council, the proposed new process would appear to lessen accountability.

It could potentially also result in a complete reordering of the city’s commissions by next year, as one of two “transition” options presented by city staff would be to “wipe the slate clean” and have the five council members make their new appointments – though presumably some would choose to reappoint incumbent commissioners – if and when the new process is officially adopted by the Council.

The Council would be wise to give this appointment vehicle careful consideration before taking the wheel.

And the reason isn’t because the current council members would necessarily make ill-advised appointments. They’re overall a thoughtful group; their selections might be fine. In fact, what council member wouldn’t prefer a free hand in making appointments? But we don’t know about the efficacy of the next council. Or the council after that.

And if anyone thinks this model doesn’t open up the commissions to politicization, I’ve got a bridge on Watmaugh I’d like to sell them.

At the June 6 meeting, Councilmember Amy Harrington expressed bewilderment as to concerns over the potential “politicization” of commission appointments; she said there would be nothing wrong with a council member selecting commission appointees because they share a similar vision for the city. To that, we agree. But the politicization concern in this case isn’t about making decisions because two people share a political philosophy, but rather making them because one is beholden to a political power. And if a commissioner’s standing on a commission is tied to staying in the good graces of a city council member, well that’s the wrong kind of politicization. And politicization can go both ways – what would prevent a council member from appointing an associate or supporter?

It’s worth pointing out that, while this process isn’t the norm among municipalities, neither is it unheard of. The City of Santa Rosa uses a similar process to appoint commission members; if Sonoma’s particularly fond of the city planning decisions made by our neighbor to the north, then perhaps it’s a model we should follow.

Gary Edwards is a former longtime Planning Commissioner and, as such, is the only current council member with firsthand knowledge of the commission. From what we’ve seen and heard since he came on the Council, Edwards seems to be the council member who holds the Planning Commission in the highest regard. Edwards was also the only vote against the personal-appointments model.

One of those Planning Commissioners Edwards admires is former longtime commissioner Bob Felder, who termed out this winter after eight years on the commission.

At the June 6 meeting, Felder spoke before the Council, urging them to steer clear of the personal-appointments model.

“(The Planning Commission) loses some independence… when you’re in bed with one of the council members,” Felder warned.

That may be true. Only, it won’t be the Planning Commission or the City Council, but the rest of Sonoma, that would wake the next morning with big regrets.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.