Editor’s Note: The following was a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors by a coalition of citizens, associations and nonprofits in early January, and recently shared with us.
We are writing to you because we are gravely concerned that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisor (BoS) appears to be moving toward less transparency rather than inclusion.
To begin addressing the issue, we respectfully request:
1) The Board of Supervisors form a Transparency Committee to ensure ease of public access to county documents, information, departments and the internet. This is particularly needed in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic; the board give direction to staff that public access is not to be unduly limited due to the pandemic; the board make its processes transparent and public friendly, as is required by law.
2) That all agenda items and key issues coming before the Board be made available to all board members at the same time they are provided to the chair; that preliminary agenda topics be available and posted with accurate descriptions on the county website and, where requested, available via the U.S Postal Service.
3) That the Ad Hoc Committee work of the board be recognized and open to the public. Ad Hoc Committees should have an expiration date when established, and have their single purpose described. They cannot be perpetual committees under the Brown Act.
4) That the Local Coastal Plan update, planning ordinance updates, and any consideration of major changes in the processes of the county (e.g. changes in terms of the chair) be postponed until public meetings are allowed. There appears to be no urgency that would require a Zoom update, recognizing that public input is necessary to make informed public decisions.
Despite the pandemic, citizens deserve open, transparent government.
The Santa Rosa City Council in December voted to approve a transparent government proposal that has labored through subcommittee and council consideration for six years. The impetus was mass public demonstrations against the shooting of teenager Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy. The Council recognized that openness in government makes for a happier, more informed citizenry and better decision making.
On Dec. 6, on short notice, an agenda item was placed on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda proposing that board chairs be elected for two years instead of one, beginning when the incoming chairperson begins their term. This proposal could have been approved before supervisor-elect Chris Coursey would take his seat. Thanks to Executive Officer Sheryl Bratton, the move was tabled until supervisor Coursey could join his colleagues and participate in a decision that will affect our future governance structure.
Traditionally, board members have each served one-year terms as chair of the board. The chairperson ran meetings and tended to ceremonial duties. Now, however, the chairperson has the power to select, or not, agenda items for weekly meetings. This limits the opportunity for an individual supervisor to agendize items concerning their own district, or in many instances, be aware of agenda Items in advance.
Rotation of the chair and vice chair promotes leadership, transparency, legitimacy, and helpful transitions into new leadership. It also provides representation for all five districts in a five-year cycle. Perhaps it would be wise to first research other counties that use the two-year chair system. We have been able to identify only California Charter Counties that have two-year chairmanships at this time.
Hopefully, this recent effort to instate a two-year chair term is not part of a new board ethic that limits publicly available information or input. There are, however, other instances where public input appears to be more limited than under prior boards:
Meetings categorized as “ad hoc” — small, focused meetings on specific topics not requiring disclosure — are used to “streamline” a process or provide greater efficiency, but have created a closed system that shuts out the public.
For example, after work done by an ad hoc committee, the BoS on Dec. 9 approved what many believe to be looser environmental regulations for Vineyard and Orchard Site Development (VESCO). Driven by increasing problems from storm events, VESCO was established to limit erosion impacts of hillside vineyard or orchard development and other environmental infractions through environmental performance standards.
Unlike interaction with industry leaders, outreach and engagement with downstream neighbors, environmental groups and agency representatives was limited to one pre-pandemic “stakeholder” meeting.
“Technical difficulties” may explain limitations for citizens attempting to make public comment during this era of Zoom, but it was problematic that several industry representatives were able to make statements in favor of the VESCO amendments, while a number of other speakers were unable to be recognized.
Similarly, replacing the General Manager (GM) of the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (AOSD) was initially an item on the board’s consent calendar for their sole consideration and approval. It was only after public outcry that the process was opened to public input. This concern regarding leadership comes in part because funding for the AOSD relies on a favorable ballot vote of the people.
A supervisor was recently cited for conflict of interest by concerned citizens for his role in promoting cannabis industry interests. He had been involved in undisclosed meetings with industry lobbyists. The Board of Supervisors will soon be considering extensive changes to the cannabis ordinance making full citizen involvement timely and part of the legally established process for government decision-making.
Our Local Coastal Plan (LCP) Update has been crafted by Permit Sonoma without what was formerly routine public access to staff. All past Coastal Plan Updates have had Citizen Advisory Groups and planned citizen input. The county now states the intention to hold Zoom “workshops” for the public on select LCP topics. It should be noted that many citizens, especially in remote areas along the coast, may not have the technical capacity to participate.
Additionally, basic access to county business is limited by certain processes, such as not releasing the BoS meeting agendas and supporting packets until the Friday before Monday or Tuesday hearings. That leaves little time for the public to research, digest and prepare for participation.
While staff reports and recommendations are to be submitted to the chair four weeks in advance, only the chair sees the preliminary agenda. Other supervisors may not know key issues until the end of the week before a Monday or Tuesday hearing. All supervisors should have access to the agenda and preliminary information at the same time, as part of their preparation for the meeting/hearing. The county website has poor navigation and no site map — even when documents are updated and available, they may be impossible to find. BOS-written minutes often take months to appear, so that it's hard to find the result of board votes.
All of these internalized obstacles to public participation are exacerbated by the pandemic. Meetings are held privately, electronically. Public documents are unavailable for perusal without an appointment and are sometimes simply unavailable despite the public’s legal rights. It is increasingly necessary to access information that was once readily available via requests through a Public Records Act.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased limitations to the county’s important functions and decisions at a time when concerns about government are heightened. While recognizing that business must continue during the pandemic, the county should work doubly hard to ensure public access.
Thank you for considering the ways the County of Sonoma can improve transparency in governances process and procedures, even as we battle pandemic conditions.
We all benefit from open government. Please do not hesitate to reach out for our support and collaboration.
Michael Allen, SCCA Board Chairman Patrick Ball
Belmont Terrace Mutual Water Company
Bodega Bay Concerned Citizens
Carol and Stefan Bokaie
California Native Plant Society, Milo Baker Chapter
California River Watch
Coast Action Group (CAG)
Coastal Hills Rural Protection (CHRP) Community Clean Water Institute Nancy Feehan
Friends of Atascadero Wetlands (FAW) Friends of the Eel River
Friends of Graton (FOG)
Craig S. Harrison
Latino Democratic Club
League of Women Voters (LWV) Colleen Mahoney, SOSN member Janus Matthes
Laura Morgan, M.D.
Petaluma River Council
Preserve Rural Sonoma County
Nancy and Brantly Richardson
John Rosenblum, PhD
Sebastopol Water Information Group (SWiG)
Sereno Del Mar ACC
Teri Shore, Advocacy Director, Greenbelt Alliance
Sonoma County Conservation Action
Sonoma County Democratic Party
Sonoma County Transportation & Land-Use Coalition
Sonoma County Water Coalition (SCWC)
Wine & Water Watch