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Editorial: Sonoma Planning Commission appeals self

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The linguistics term “collocation” refers to a combination of words that are paired with such frequency that they’ve fallen into common parlance as a single term. Examples are thank you, fast food, big deal, ladies first, etc.

With that in mind, here’s a good one to describe the Sept. 4 meeting of the Sonoma Planning Commission: Painfully awkward.

That’s the only adverb-adjective one-two punch that aptly captures the tone in Council Chambers last week when the commission ostensibly gathered to hear public feedback on the revised draft Environmental Impact Report for the Hotel Sonoma Project, the long-deliberated 62-room hotel and 80-seat restaurant proposed for West Napa Street.

But not everyone left the meeting discussing the new inclusionary housing alternative in the EIR. Instead, a lot of post-meeting buzz was about Planning Commissioner Carol Jansen’s public chiding of city planning staff over what basically amounts to personnel matters within their own department.

Here’s an overly brief recent history of the Sonoma Planning Department: Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison announced his impending retirement last March, saying he’d hang up his planning cleats for good in early August, after more than three decades with the department. Then the department’s institutional knowledge took another major blow in June when longtime senior planner Rob Gjestland took a job with a private consulting firm. The City brought in retired Fairfax planning director Jim Moore on a part-time interim basis, while it conducted a broader search for a permanent replacement. But after only two weeks into the post-Goodison era, on Aug. 20, Moore unexpectedly resigned.

For those who follow city planning diegesis, the clear question was: Who’s steering the planning ship with so many project applications coming down the pike?

In an email to the Index-Tribune, City Manager Cathy Capriola described it as “a rebuild and transition time for the Planning Department,” noting that the high cost of living in Sonoma, coupled with the better pay of private-sector planning gigs, makes recruitment a challenge.

In the meantime, the City has brought on Jim Reese, a planning consultant with Management Partners, on a two-day per week schedule to lead Sonoma’s department while the search for a director continues.

Nevertheless, time waits for no one – and, in the world of city planning departments, neither do development proposals. The show must go on.

And it was about to Sept. 4, when Planning Commissioner Jansen strayed from the hotel-EIR-agenda at hand to request that the comment period for commissioners be moved to the beginning of the meeting in order for the public to hear her questions to staff. The commission agreed, and Jansen set in with a minor interrogation of city staff – she repeatedly demanded explanations about Moore’s departure, made Reese detail how his work schedule was impacting the Commission’s meeting calendar, and rebuked Commission Chair Bob Felder’s attempts to steer her back to the agenda at hand.

“No. I’m not going to do that,” Jansen responded, when Felder suggested she change her line of questioning. “I’m going to ask the question and I want an answer.”

Jansen’s pointed, at times patronizing, line of questioning to staff went on and on. Meanwhile, the other commission members stirred uncomfortably in their chairs, or simply stared at their shoes.

For whatever reason, Jansen had clearly planned to put the beleaguered staff on the hot seat – earlier in the meeting she’s said she wanted as much of the public to hear her questions as possible, an indication she was hoping to make a spectacle. At one point, when she didn’t get an answer she liked from staff, she sat back and threw her hands in the air.

It was certainly an uncomfortable moment for the Sonoma Planning Commission, after more than a year of uncomfortable moments for the commission – which in that time has experienced multiple resignations, several appeals to its decisions and a major overhaul of its membership.

Still, none of this should be a big surprise to anyone. This newspaper warned of the likelihood of future instability more than a year ago, when the Sonoma City Council revised its method for appointing city commission members and in effect unseated all of its established volunteer commissioners and asked them to reapply for their positions. Some did, some didn’t, two of them chose to run for City Council. But its primary impact now is that it’s de-legitimized the authority of city commissions. Some members are experienced, some are new, some are debriefing interim planning consultants.

We hope Jansen’s frustrated demeanor that evening isn’t indicative of how she’ll conduct herself in typical meetings – the appearance of mutual respect between a city’s staff and its governing boards is vital for an effective municipality. Her inquiries about City Hall personnel matters should be directed toward the city manager, not a part-time outside consultant.

And, yet, despite her misdirection, Hansen’s observations aren’t entirely without warrant.

“Everything we do that’s of any substance, gets appealed to the City Council,” said Jansen at the Sept. 4 meeting. “So that doesn’t tell me that, as a commission, we’re acting in any way shape or form that gives any (probability) to the public that they are actually going to live by whatever it is we do.”

Continued Hansen: “That’s what we do. We sit here and we act on something, it gets appealed to the City Council and then whatever happens, happens.”

The good news is that the rocky waters for the Planning Department are likely only temporary. Once a permanent director comes on board and the newer members of the city commissions find their feet, there’s no reason to think the course ahead won’t be smoother.

Capriola points out that among the city’s 35 employees, most have been in their positions more than five years. “Sonoma has had little turnover for many years,” said Capriola, “and then in my experience from working in many cities, transitions can come in waves.”

She concedes that the transition to a new planning director is “inherently complicated and challenging” and that an interim team can’t fully take the place of a permanent director -- “but we are committed to ensuring the City meets its obligations to the public and applicants.”

Added Capriola: “I know this transition time can be frustrating. But I know this period will end and we will build a new successful team.”

Until then, here’s one more collocation that might come in handy:

Help wanted.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.