Editorial: Gateway Project moves foreward, and a letter from George H.W. Bush

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“Process” won out at Monday’s meeting of the Sonoma City Council.

That’s when Councilmember Amy Harrington recused herself Dec. 3 from a final vote on the so-called Gateway Project, a proposal for 33 housing units and 3,100 feet of commercial space at 899 Broadway, and the council voted 3-1 to approve the long-vetted development. But it almost didn’t happen that way.

The final approval of the project was delayed from its initial Nov. 5 vote after Harrington, an attorney, questioned her standing to vote on the matter after moving her law office the prior month to the space directly adjacent to the project. She sought a delay in the final vote, to allow her time to seek direction on a possible recusal from the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Harrington was in the minority of the council’s prior 3-2 approval of the project. So recusal or not, the final vote presumably would have been for approval.

That is, unless the delay stretched to the Dec. 10 meeting when councilmember-elect Logan Harvey took over the seat of outgoing Councilmember Gary Edwards, a supporter of the project. Such a delay would have opened up the possibility of Harvey swinging the vote the other way, and possibly closing the door on the Gateway.

In considering the initial delay of the vote last month, members of the council and some project-opponents from the public, cited the need to get the “process” right before taking a vote. And, thus, the council – with only Edwards against – voted to delay the decision to Dec. 3, Edwards’ final full meeting on the council.

Respect for “process” should be commended. But the process surely would not have been served if a surprise and unnecessary delay resulted in a project being decided partly by a new council member who hadn’t properly vetted the project as a member of the council. It would have been a disservice to project supporters, those weary of the derelict Truck & Auto project site, and certainly the developers themselves. And it would be a disservice to anyone expecting a sense of fair play in Sonoma city government.

Whether one supports the Gateway Project or not, it’s been hashed over by the city Planning Commission, the City Council and members of the public for more than a year. And it’s received its required approval to move forward by the city officials it has been working with in that time.

And so move forward it should. That’s the process.

With everyone sharing stories this week of how the late George H.W. Bush’s outward decency overshadowed his prosaic single-term at 1600 Pennsylvania, here’s one more story about why POTUS 41 is being remembered as the last president who wasn’t completely despised by 40 percent of the country.

I was at my first-ever newspaper job – calendar editor at the Marin Independent Journal. The year was 2002. In some ways, it was a more innocent time – back when newspapers still had full-time calendar editors and readers still used actual calendars. In other ways, not so innocent: it was a post-9/11 world of forever war, black ops and “Temptation Island 2.”

It was also when local Fairfax boy made not-so-good John Walker Lindh had just been captured as an “enemy combatant” fighting with the Taliban during the invasion of Afghanistan. The story made national headlines and H.W., in his outrage, made some sort of public comment about the “American Taliban” being just “some misguided Marin hot-tubber.”

Well, that didn’t go over so well with the locals – who by that time were no longer so much “hot-tubbers” as they were “wine-spritzer sippers” -- and the local letters-to-the-editor pages and daytime talk shows filled with requisite outrage and umbrage.

A few days later, I was opening up my daily basket of envelopes addressed to the calendar editor and, lo and behold, there was a letter of apology to me from George Herbert Walker Bush. Well, it wasn’t exactly to me – it was to the entire county, but addressed to me – and so I passed it along to my editors at the time. The fact that Bush thought “calendar editor” was the proper desk from which to issue a formal mea culpa to a 180,000-strong liberal enclave was merely one of the letter’s many charms.

Where Bush could easily have ignored the fuss and gone back to golfing and skydiving, as he was wont to do in later years, he couldn’t stand the thought of lingering bad feelings between himself and a community that 10 years prior had overwhelming voted against a second Bush term.

Love him or hate him, George H.W. Bush was going to be polite about it.

“Call off the dogs please,” began Bush in the letter. “I apologize. I am chastened and will never use ‘hot tub’ and ‘Marin County’ in the same sentence again.”

Bush said he was “so offended” by Lindh “that I hurt others’ feelings.” And, judging from the outraged letters, “obviously,” he observed, “I struck a nerve.”

Bush noted that readers had taken cheap shots at everything from his granddaughters and Enron to his being a Texan and his pronunciation of Marin. “You name it, a lot of angst has surfaced, and it’s all my fault,” conceded Bush.

“Though I only garnered 23 percent of the vote in Marin in 1992, I was your president and I should have known better,” wrote Bush. “I apologize to those who supported me that were offended, and I also apologize to the unenlightened who did not support me.

Bush signed off by adding: “I will now soak in my own hot tub and try to be more sensitive to the feelings of others -- not John Walker Lindh, though.”

In a telephone call to our editor at the time, Jackie Kerwin, the former president said he hadn’t intended for his “offhand comment” to strike such a nerve.

“When I saw the depth of feeling of the responses, I said, ‘Why not just say you’re sorry?’ I believe if you screw up, you say you’re sorry and move on.”

RIP, Mr. Bush. Thanks for reminding us about how it’s done. And in how far we’ve come from that.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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