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Debate over fire committee and the right to comment roils council meeting
Recap of the February 7 City Council Meeting
All council members were present at the February 7 Sebastopol City Council meeting, including Mayor Neysa Hinton, Vice Mayor Diana Rich, Councilmember Sandra Maurer, Councilmember Jill McLewis, and Councilmember Stephen Zollman.
Note of Conflict of Interest: In addition to being the co-publisher of the Sebastopol Times, the author of this piece is also a part-time contractor for the city of Sebastopol. The news reported in this article, and any opinions reflected therein, are not dictated by or reflective of the opinions of the city council or staff of the city of Sebastopol.
The mood at the February 7 council meeting was contentious as members of the public challenged the city council on actions large and small throughout the evening.
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(Note: The consent calendar consists of items that are routine in nature or don’t require additional discussion, often because they’ve been discussed extensively at a previous council meeting.)
The council unanimously approved the consent calendar, which in addition to the minutes of the last meeting, included the following:
A resolution authorizing continued use of teleconference meetings based on the COVID-19 state of emergency.
Amendments to Sebastopol Little League’s lease for the use of city ball fields, which included extending their lease to 25 years, enabling them to raise money to replace the lights.
Resolution authorizing the closure of Main Street during the 2023 Apple Blossom Parade on Saturday, April 29.
Approval of Sebastopol Rotary Club sponsorship request for a concert at Ives Park on June 3.
Appointments to the Design Review Board and Climate Action Committee
Cary Bush and Lynn Deedler were appointed to two-year terms on the Design Review Board, with Marshall Balfe as the alternate.
Next, Emmett Hopkins, Zeno Swijtink, Josho Somine, and Alex Goodman were appointed to the Climate Action Committee (CAC). The council also voted to continue recruitment for CAC’s unfilled positions, which include two youth, a business owner and environmental justice positions.
During public comment several speakers took issue with both the make-up and the existence of the Climate Action Committee.
Oliver Dick, continuing a theme struck during his unsuccessful campaign for city council, questioned whether the committee was "burning up a lot of council and staff time" that might be better used on more pressing local issues that the city actually had control over. He also objected to the CAC’s “95472 rule,” which allows people from outside city boundaries but within the zip code to be members on the committee.
Other commenters and, later, Councilmember McLewis echoed these themes in their comments.
All of the CAC’s critics said they believed climate change was real and a problem, but felt the committee shouldn’t be attached to the city, especially if some of its members aren’t residents of Sebastopol.
McLewis said, “You know, we don't necessarily want to have policies influenced by people who do not actually live in our community. And one that comes to mind for me here in Sebastopol is just the electrification of our whole city.”
Commentor Steve Pierce defended the committee’s existence and make-up, as did City Planning Director Kari Svanstrom, who noted that dealing with the Climate Action Committee usually takes just two hours of staff time per week. She noted that "while they do take staff time, they also contribute back," citing the committee’s work on compost giveaways and consulting on EV chargers.
Public Art Committee Update
Public Arts Committee head Marghe Mills-Thysen gave an update on her committee’s activities. She offered a brief slideshow on the public art that the committee had worked to bring to the city: Michael McGinnis’s Gray Matter at the library, the sculpture garden in Ives Park, and Ned Kahn’s Sebastopol Spire, due to be installed soon near the eastern entrance to Sebastopol.
Mills-Thysen’s theme seemed to be the importance of patience and persistence in developing public art. She noted that the sculpture garden, which opened last year, was six years in the making.
“Things often take time working with a democracy, a city, and a government,” she said.
Mills-Thysen said the committee has been focusing its efforts on placing public art at the four entrances to the city on Highways 12 and 116.
As part of this goal, the Public Arts Committee wants to place a piece of public art on Petaluma Avenue at the head of the Joe Rodota Trail on a small triangular piece of land owned by the county. She was seeking the council’s endorsement of this site, which the council unanimously approved.
Mills-Thysen concluded by listing several other goals for the Public Arts Committee in the coming year, including redesigning its page on the city website; creating a program for local schools about art in the community; strengthening connections with other arts organizations; creating an inventory of sites for future public art installations; and looking at the role of city signage as public art.
Making room for public comment for items not on the agenda
In the past, public comment for non-agendized items happened at the beginning of the council meeting, but in January, Mayor Hinton experimented with moving it to the end of the meeting, which infuriated those who comment frequently during this period.
The goal of moving it to the end of the evening was to ensure that the council could make it through its agendized items and staff reports in a reasonable amount of time.
Public comment for items not on the agenda is a double-edged sword – important public issues do come up, but it’s also used by conspiracy mongers and folks with certain fixed ideas, including the EMF-sensitivity crowd.
One of Sebastopol’s new council members, Sandra Maurer, is the founder of the EMF Safety Network. She also has a genuine commitment to public involvement in the political process. So, it wasn’t surprising that she led the charge to have public comment for items not on the agenda returned to the head of the meeting.
“In my campaign, I stated that I valued the range of people's viewpoints, and I believe inclusivity of public opinion is essential to solving community challenges,” she said.
“The way I see it is, when I think about the organizational structure of Sebastopol, you have the residents on top—they're the boss. Underneath that is the council. Underneath that is the city manager and staff. We are elected to serve the residents, and I believe that we are really lucky to have really engaged residents here in Sebastopol. They are our eyes and our ears. And by law we are required to provide a reasonable amount of time for comments on non-agenda items. This is part of our business. This is what we're here to do. It's not something extraneous.”
At a recent meeting for council members in Sacramento, Maurer had asked several city council members from around the state about the placement and timing of public comments on non-agenda items. Here’s what she learned:
“Palo Alto, Fairfield, Corning, Colusa, Willows, Campbell and one other city—they all allowed three minutes with no cumulative time limit at the beginning of their meetings,” she said. “All Sonoma County cities allow three minutes. Four have no cumulative time limits, and the rest allow 30 minutes except Petaluma, which allows 20, all at the beginning of their meeting. Both Cotati and Santa Rosa allow a continuation of public comments at the end of their meetings.”
Her research proved useful as the council struggled with when and how much public comment on non-agendized items to allow.
Maurer initially proposed 30 minutes at the beginning of the evening—a compromise since she noted that most jurisdictions didn’t have a cumulative time limit, but she said that she was aware that the majority of the council wanted some kind of limit.
Diana Rich initially suggested 20 minutes at the beginning of the meeting, limited to two minutes for each speaker, with another 20 minutes at the end, also limited to two minutes.
Unsurprisingly, this issue generated a lot of public comment.
Angela Ford said, “It's just a shame to see this erosion of the democratic process and the avoidance of the hurly burly craziness which is called democracy. I’m urging 30 minutes, which is the norm.”
Martha Glaser, who said “I think this is a core matter for the democratic process,” liked the idea of having public comment at the start of the meeting, “with more comments after the agendized items.”
Dorothy (no last name listed) argued for the creation of a separate meeting, which would consist solely of public comments, while Oliver Dick suggested that the council could improve public engagement by putting “hot ticket items at the front of the agenda.”
In the end, the council unanimously approved 20 minutes at the beginning of the meeting for public comment for items not on the agenda, with a two-minute time limit and up to 10 commenters; at the end of the meeting, the council would then reopen public comment for non-agendized items for 20 minutes, with a three-minute time limit for each comment.
Council creates another Fire Services Ad Hoc Committee
Because of the hue and cry at the last special council meeting on fire department consolidation, Mayor Hinton began by announcing that she was moving up the item regarding the creation of yet another Fire Services Ad Hoc Committee—the third in six years.
Council members took turns saying what sort of issues they thought the ad hoc committee should consider. Sandra Maurer said that she’d like to hear first from Fire Chief Jack Piccinini—and so the public finally got what they’d begged for all during the last special council meeting—a chance to hear from the fire chief.
“It's the process that is the key to moving these kinds of projects forward,” he told the council before laying out what his approach to the question of consolidation might look like in terms of the mission, tasks and end product. (See his complete statement at the end of this article.)
“Defining the role of the stakeholders—who they're going to be and then what their role is—is really important, because in this process … we need inclusiveness, we need to create a process that is very transparent. We need to build relationships, which is the foundation of trust in this process. And that's what results in a collaborative, objective outcome.”
After this, the council members reiterated the tasks they felt the ad hoc should address. Council members also discussed how to engage the public via town halls or public meetings. (City Attorney Larry McLaughlin said that a city council ad hoc committee cannot include members of the public, just council people and city staff.)
In public comments, numerous speakers said that they were disappointed that the council was creating another ad hoc committee instead of a more inclusive and transparent working group consisting of the fire chief and other stakeholders.
“It's unclear to me why we can't move forward with the Matrix recommendation of a working group that includes stakeholders and is more transparent,” said Kate Haug. “I could imagine a working group led by Chief Piccinini that has people that are part of our neighborhood emergency response, part of our police department, part of our business community. I just think that we need more transparency in this whole process as we move forward with this so we know really what's at stake.”
Haug and a few others suggested that if an ad hoc committee must be formed, it should include Councilmembers McLewis and Maurer.
Maurer, seeing that the council was going to go ahead and create an ad hoc in spite of public opposition, suggested that the ad hoc consist of McLewis and Mayor Hinton – McLewis because she’d expressed interest (and perhaps because she seemed to have the trust of the public – or at least those in attendance) and Mayor Hinton, because of her experience with the issue.
The council unanimously approved this proposal. The ad hoc committee will consist of Mayor Hinton, Councilmember Jill McLewis, Fire Chief Piccinini as well as City Manager Larry McLaughlin and Assistant City Manager Mary Gourley.
In-person council meetings returning with remote option for public
Governor Newsom will rescind the COVID-19 State of Emergency on February 28, which means that the city council (and all city commissions and boards with public meetings) will have to start meeting again in person.
The council voted unanimously for a hybrid meeting model, in which the council and some members of the city staff will attend meetings in person (except for personal emergencies), but city consultants and the public may choose to attend and participate either in person or via Zoom.
More city council and staff committee changes
The council approved a change to the makeup of the Climate Action Committee. Two council members sit on the committee: one of these must also be the city’s rep to SCTA/RCPA (Sonoma County Transportation Authority/Regional Climate Protection Authority) or Zero Waste Sonoma; the second position is open to anyone on the city council. Vice Mayor Diana Rich and Councilmember Sandra Maurer will be the new council liaisons to the Climate Action Committee.
In their next action, the council made the city’s planning director the staff representative to Zero Waste Sonoma’s SB1383 Technical Group.
The next item involved finding a new council member to be on the ad hoc committee exploring recruitment for the replacement(s) for retiring City Attorney/City Manager Larry McLaughlin. The council appointed Vice Mayor Diana Rich to take the place of Mayor Hinton, who had stepped down from this committee. (Jill McLewis is the council member on this committee.)
The final piece of business for the evening involved giving direction to Mayor Hinton about whom to vote for to fill several vacancies on boards and committees at the next Sonoma County Mayors and Councilmembers Association and City Selection Committee meetings.
Councilmember Stephen Zollman had applied for three of the positions: as an alternate to the ABAG executive board (the Association of Bay Area Governments); as a representative to the Child Care Planning Council of Sonoma County; and as an alternate to LAFCO (Local Agency Formation Commission). The council approved him for all three.
The council’s other recommendations were as follows: Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District Citizens Advisory Committee: Mark Stapp (Santa Rosa); North Bay Division, LOCC, Executive Board: Jackie Elward (Rohnert Park); Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Commission: Melanie Bagby (Cloverdale) and Chris Rogers (Santa Rosa); Committee Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO): Sandra Lowe (Sonoma) and Susan Harvey (Cotati); Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board: Brian Barnacle (Petaluma); Committee Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO): Sandra Lowe (Sonoma) and Susan Harvey (Cotati).
It was both heartening and disconcerting to see that the city council makes its voting decisions for positions on random boards in the same way most voters do: they read the candidate statements, vote for the people they know (even slightly) or that their colleagues know; then they hope for the best.
The meeting ended at 12:03 am. The council had been meeting since 4 pm that afternoon. That’s a tad over 8 hours.
You can watch the Feb. 7 council meeting in full here. The next Sebastopol City Council meeting is February 21 at 6 pm.
Jack Piccinini’s statement during the meeting
You can listen to Piccinni’s remarks here, starting at the 5:41:28 mark.)
“Good evening, Madam Mayor, members of the Council. Thanks for pulling me into this discussion. So, I am a little more ambitious on the timeline. I don't disagree with the city manager's perspective at all—these things do take time, but we have laid a lot of groundwork. And while there are some fundamental issues with the consultant's report, again, it does set forth a good baseline for us to move forward.
So, whether it's the semantics of an ad hoc committee or stakeholders, I think something that I would offer for you to consider is that we engage in a process. I have been through this a number of times, and it's the process that is the key to moving these kinds of projects forward. Step one of the process is to define the mission, tasks and the end state.
I'll just give you some really quick examples on what the mission is—and hope that it maybe helps you to identify what you want out of this.
So as an example, the overriding objectives could be:
Identify and evaluate fire and emergency service delivery system options— all of those that got brought up last meeting.
Develop a potential strategy for addressing the short- and long-term remodel of the fire station.
Develop a potential strategy for addressing the needed fire engine replacement.
So those are just really quick examples of what the mission might look like. And I'm not suggesting that those are it—those are only examples. And I'm not suggesting that they will be limited to that.
Then we get to the tasks, and when I reflect on the tasks and then reflect on some of the questions that came up from council during the study session, what we would be tasked to do is conduct a thorough analysis of the annexing agency, in terms of their capacity:
What would be the real economy of scale?
What would be the greater efficiencies?
What would be the apportionment?
What is the real cost of the annexing agency? (And that is, again, a little bit of a missing piece.)
We could provide a detailed overview of the LAFCO process and the annexation process—that came up with some questions during the study session.
We could provide an overview of the governance models that go along with each of the different options that you might be interested in.
We could provide a detailed overview of, if we were to pursue our own parcel tax, what would that look like? And I can lay that out in some very clear terms for you to consider.
Or a detailed overview of the bond—I believe Council member Zollman wanted to look into that a little bit closer.
What would be the fire insurance implications?
This is the work in where we would answer your questions so we could move things forward.
And then the end state—the end state is, What is the product you want? What is the deliverable? What are we going to put in your hands? I would say that, again, in three months or so, we could provide a detailed staff report with an executive summary. We could provide a very compact compare and contrast report that would accompany that with the key findings and key recommendations. And we would come back and return it to the full council.
And when I say we—I mean either a workgroup or ad hoc committee, whatever you chose to refer to it as—and we would deliver a staff presentation that would present everything that I just summarized—all of the options. And then, what are the key findings? And basically, the final tasks—the deliverable—would be to do what we needed to do to give council as much information as possible so that you're fully informed on moving forward in terms of this very critical decision.
And then lastly, I do want to just speak to stakeholders. And, again, I won't go into the weeds on my thoughts on this unless you ask specific questions, but defining the role of the stakeholders - who they're going to be and then what their role is - is really important, because in this process, we need to clarify everybody's inclusivity, we need inclusiveness, we need to create a process that is very transparent. We need to build relationships, which is the foundation of trust in this process. And that's what results in a collaborative, objective outcome.
And so, with that, this really comes down to ‘It’s all about process,’ and again, this is in my wheelhouse. This is where I have expertise.”
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