By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Power plays and political sniping are becoming more apparent in the debate over chain stores in Sonoma as the city inches closer to becoming one of the few in California to strictly regulate corporate businesses.
Even the normally routine matter of what issues city councilmembers can bring up for discussion at public meetings is now under review after one councilmember accused another of wasting staff time with the chain store debate.
Sonoma’s business interests, in the meantime, are starting to assert their influence out of concern that the city is rapidly moving toward new regulations that some fear will put a damper on economic growth.
“Yes it’s concerning. Absolutely,” said Jennifer Yankovich, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The acrimony likely will get a public airing at tonight’s City Council meeting when the issue of chain stores will factor into two agenda items.
One is a review of the city’s informal policy in which any councilmember can ask for an item to be placed on the agenda so long as it doesn’t take staff more than 10 minutes to produce an initial report on the item. A more expansive undertaking of an issue requires the approval of a majority of councilmembers.
Councilwoman Joanne Sanders made an issue of the policy during an April 5 meeting when councilmembers considered enacting an emergency ordinance to prevent Staples from opening a store in town at the site of a former Ford dealership.
Councilman Ken Brown had asked for discussion of the moratorium, which did not receive council support and was dropped.
Sanders said in an interview last week that city staff spent more than the allotted time on Brown’s request and that it resulted in $2,015 in city attorney fees related to research on the emergency ordinance.
Sanders, a small-business owner, is against any new regulations for chain stores. But she insisted that her concern with Brown’s actions were not specific to that issue.
“I don’t think staff should spend 10 minutes on anything until a majority of the City Council thinks that is an important and pressing need,” she said.
Brown defended his decision to raise the Staples issue and he called the 10-minute rule “absurd.”
“I have complete trust that staff isn’t wasting the city’s time and money, and that they have a grasp on what they need to do to prepare an agenda item,” he said.
As a compromise, City Manager Linda Kelly is proposing that the full council sign off on any request for an agenda item that initially is estimated to take more than an hour of staff time.
The dust-up speaks to the larger controversy that began with Staples and has now grown into a community-wide debate over all chain stores. Other than design review of buildings, Sonoma does not define or regulate chain businesses that meet zoning regulations, including in the city’s historic downtown area, which is ground zero of the current debate.
Sanders, however, said she doesn’t believe the discussion should be happening at all. “I think the issue should be killed, and I’ll probably make that motion Monday,” she said.
Councilmembers also are expected to discuss whether the city should form an ad-hoc committee to tackle the chain store issue, or punt it to the city’s already-established economic advisory group.
Mayor Laurie Gallian and Councilman Steve Barbose proposed the new committee and are seeking to have themselves appointed to it. Barbose said his goal is to speed up the process. Asked why the urgency, he said “there’s a group of constituents who are concerned about this.”
That includes Sonoma County’s Accountable Development Coalition, which according to Barbose has advocated for Sonoma to use “community impact reports” to study potential development.
Advocates say such reports provide a fuller description of a project by assessing its impact on everything from schools to demands for health care. Critics say the reports increase development costs by adding additional layers of bureaucracy.
Barbose said he does not support the reports because Sonoma does not have potential development of a size that would warrant the greater scrutiny. But he said he is seeking new regulations of some sort to govern chain stores.
“We need some tools so that if issues like this come up again we have the ability to deal with them,” he said. “But I don’t have any foregone conclusions about what that’s going to look like.”
Some view the efforts by Barbose and Gallian as their attempt to steer the debate toward the outcome they desire. Members of the city’s Economic Development Advisory Committee, which includes Sanders, are instead asking the council to let that group handle the issue.
“Why should the council create a separate committee to handle this?” she said.
But Barbose said the economic advisory group does not support doing anything with regard to chain stores and therefore he is opposed to handing the issue to them.
“That makes no sense to me,” he said.
Yankovich is one of two chamber of commerce representatives who are members of the advisory group. She spoke of a need to “reframe” the debate over chain stores to one where people express what they want for the city versus what they don’t. Like Sanders, she sees no need for additional regulations.
“Why are we having this discussion at a time when we are bolstering our efforts to create jobs and grow our wonderful businesses?” she said.