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Sonoma County – Page 3 – Green Dragon
Sep 092012

Twenty-one years ago today, I stepped up to the door of a house in Windsor, knocked, and recruited the very first member of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

More than two decades of remarkable policy achievements (voter-approved Urban Growth Boundaries in every city; regulations limiting development of hillside vineyards on steep slopes and near streams; defeat of the City of Santa Rosa’s attempts to make the Estero Americano and the Russian River the receiver of its wastewater; approval of the SMART rail system) and election of dozens of sterling environmental officials later, SCCA is still going strong.

We celebrated the anniversary today with an event at the Hotel La Rose.

As SCCA’s founding Executive Director and initial proponent, I am so proud…as should be the thousands of members, donors, staff and volunteers who have made Conservation Action such a potent force for grassroots democracy and environmental protection since 1991.

Image shown is Conservation Action’s original logo, long since updated.

At publication, the Dragon was PROUD

Sep 042012

To his credit, Pete Golis, retired Editorial Director and now occasional opinion columnist of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, has come out in favor of district elections for the City of Santa Rosa. Under the proposed change to the city’s system of government, one City Council member would be elected from each of seven sub-districts of the city, rather than all running at large. As a result, every part of town would have a representative on the City Council.

It’s a good idea, and long overdue. Voters should support it.

I was nonplussed, however, by Mr. Golis’ most recent column on the topic, in which he wrote that he is concerned a hotly contested campaign over the question could be “divisive”.

Mr. Golis’ argument, in essence, is this:

  • Concerns about threats to Santa Rosa’s quality of life due to growth are no longer warranted because growth is now slow;
  • Neighborhood advocates and environmentalists are still battling the business community only because both sides are in the habit of fighting one another;
  • The “city has been harmed by its reputation as that place in Northern California where a divided council lives in a permanent state of disharmony”…though in whose eyes—and why we should care—is unclear from his piece;
  • Therefore, partisans on both sides of the question should be careful to avoid setting the interests of the city’s regions against one another as they debate the district elections proposal.

That certainly sounds pleasant: everyone play nice, may the best side win, and let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya afterwards, because ding dong the growth is dead and we have nothing more to fight about.

Unfortunately, it’s not a perspective based on factual premises or an accurate reading of history.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Development, construction and real estate have crashed, and they’re going to stay crashed for awhile. But they won’t stay crashed forever (I hope), so using recent numbers to argue that residents need no longer be vigilant and attentive to project proposals—and to defend against business community attempts to strip hard-won planning, review and permitting standards from the development approval process while they’re waiting for things to warm up again— doesn’t make any sense. It’s like saying you don’t need to maintain your smoke alarm and fire extinguisher because your house isn’t on fire.

The heart of my disagreement with Mr. Golis’ opinion piece, however, is that he frames the debate over district elections with a false equivalence. He implies the ongoing contention between environmental/neighborhood advocates and the business community is an unnecessarily continued rivalry between roughly equal teams.

But he fails to mention that the business community (read, “development, construction and real estate interests,” since small business tends to get short shrift from what we call “business leaders” around here) has dominated the Santa Rosa City Council for all but two years in living memory.

There has been no see-saw of power in Santa Rosa. Those who advocate for neighborhoods, inclusiveness, and residents’ quality of life have spent literal decades banging on the door to City Hall, largely unheeded, while business-backed City Council majorities have cheerfully rubber-stamped approval of nearly every proposal placed before them, from expanded asphalt plant operations in the middle of town to ridgetop McMansions at Skyhawk.

In fact, if not for voters’ having directly approved an Urban Growth Boundary by initiative which only a public vote can amend, it’s probable that Santa Rosa would have continued to sprawl during the real estate boom, instead of waking up to smell the 21st century and looking seriously at slower, higher-density, pedestrian-friendly, transit-serviceable “smart growth”.

Every Santa Rosa City Council election for the past 20+ years has been a face-up battle between bags of business community cash on one side and outspent neighborhood, environmental and quality of life advocates running grassroots campaigns on the other. And most of the time, those advocating the positions embraced by a majority of the city’s voters have lost.

Fair disclosure: from 1991-2000, I was the first Executive Director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, an organization which operates a door-to-door organizing canvass which helped to somewhat level that playing field (more so in other cities). Just so we’re all clear about what side I’m on.

I proposed and helped to build SCCA because I believe in democracy. Anyone looking at a poll of Sonoma County in the late 1980s could see that rates of growth and eroding quality of life were at the top of public concerns. But in the absence of a countervailing voice, pro-development candidates were running and getting elected by campaigning on slow-growth messages, and voters had no way of knowing they were being misled.

Which is surprising, when you think about it, because…well, don’t we have a local newspaper?

But I digress.

Since Santa Rosa’s founding, its City Council representatives have come almost exclusively from wealthy neighborhoods on the east side, their campaigns financed by the city’s major business interests. Of the handful who have come from the west side, at least two have lived in wealthy islands west of the freeway surrounded by—but separate from—working-class and disproportionately minority-populated areas.

Why? Well, it’s simple: because the power bloc that has run the city since time immemorial isn’t there to serve the little people. And the system works just fine for them, so when you look at the lineup of those opposing Santa Rosa district elections, it’s a rogues’ gallery of long-established leaders of those same interests.

When your cause is just, but you are consistently steamrollered by well-connected, affluent power, you get frustrated. When you’re Hispanic and you see your demographic’s share of the City’s voter base climbing rapidly without any reflection in the makeup of the City Council, you have good reason to feel the dice are loaded.

“Divisiveness” already exists. Ordinary residents, minorities and neighborhood advocates have good reason for anger about the cold reception they receive when they challenge projects proposed by the interests on the inside track. The situation has not improved. And while the City Council does, finally, have one Hispanic member, he was promoted and his campaign funded by those same entrenched interests, and is as reliable a vote for them as you could find. Hardly a game-changer.

District elections give people-powered campaigns a fighting chance. The districts are small enough that a candidate will be able to walk to every door, instead of having to campaign throughout the entire city, which encompasses more voters than a Sonoma County Supervisorial District. Candidates won’t need to raise as much money to print and mail their literature. It’ll be an opportunity for candidates on both sides of the Great Insider/Grassroots Divide to make their cases to voters, rather than one side swamping the other with money. And when people in a neighborhood have a problem, they’ll know who to go to for help.

It’s the right thing to do. It’s democracy.

Santa Rosa has been large enough to warrant district elections for at least a decade—probably two. In the meantime, we’ve had the Citizens United version of democracy, with an electoral process heavily weighting outcomes towards those who hope to profit from city policies.

You can’t make change without talking about the problem you’re trying to solve. As Mr. Golis has acknowledged, the current system has people riled up, and with good reason. Affluent areas of the city and monied interests have been dominating city politics since forever.

You can’t expect advocates for a change not to talk—and pointedly—about that. To draw comparisons. To document inequalities. If that ruffles some feathers on the part of those who have been calling the shots since the days of Carrillo and Finley…well, I say cry me a river.

Mr. Golis has been around county politics for a very long time. He understands that the advantage in an election always lies with the status quo. When he sadly opines about the potential for “divisiveness”, to me it sounds as though he is saying that it is more important to him for advocates of district elections to run a genteel, soft-pitch campaign so we can all get along afterwards than it is for them to win.

That sounds like reversed priorities to me. I’ll forgo the Kumbaya, thanks, if that’s the cost of a leveled playing field at last.

At publication, the Dragon was BLUNT

Jul 152012

Next weekend, Petaluma will hold the annual Rivertown Revival, a celebration of Petaluma as a river city and a fundraiser for the David Yearsley River Heritage Center. This is a very cool event with a sort of family-friendly Burning Man ambiance—meaning, you’ll see people in lots of wild outfits, and amazingly decorated floating art boats, musical acts, etc.

But I have a very particular memory of the magnificently preserved antique downtown and riverfront of Petaluma, which is the glow of the short-lived paddlewheeler Petaluma Queen moored at the turning basin at dusk, her lights and bright stacks reflecting in the still water.

It was a moment from another time. Listening to the water lap at the hull, you’d swear that if you just stepped on board, she’d take you not on a dinner cruise, but down to New Orleans, and adventure.

To me, the attraction of the Rivertown Revival remains the original concept of the event–something along the lines of the dear departed Handcar Regatta, a somewhat whimsical, tongue-in-cheek but historically evocative journey back to when rivers and rails were our primary means of transport.

Though Petaluma wasn’t established yet, what that most brings to mind is the world of Mark Twain’s marvelous Life on the Mississippi. If you haven’t read it, do: it’s hilarious, and filled with the atmosphere of an era which—even when Twain wrote it—had already passed away.

So when I think of heading down to Petaluma next week, it’s not in Burning Man neons and faux fur or whatever all that is. It’s more along the lines of what you see here: working men toting bales on the levee in straw hats, sparks and coal smoke streaming into the sky from the bright columns of the the great steamboats’ stacks.

Think I’ll put on that yoked, blousy cotton shirt, and find me a broad-brimmed straw hat. Maybe stuff a burlap bag, hoist it onto my shoulder, and tote that bale for a day, down by the river side.

About “Sonoma County”

 Posted by at 12:02 pm  Sonoma County
Jul 102012

A catch-all category for stuff relating to my home stomping grounds. Local politics, sightings, events, food and drink reviews, etc.

I’ve traveled a lot, and I have yet to see anywhere I’d rather live. Hope it stays that way.

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