From Scott, a very keen observer of our citizen engagement:
From Scott, a very keen observer of our citizen engagement:
For those who weren't at the joint meeting of the Sonoma Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council, the below is a mildly meandering, semi-eternal attempt at opinionated meeting minutes that veers eventually to a screed on activism, citizenry, and my personal regret at my behavior. I apologize for any confusing sarcasms and lack of clarity.
This was an important meeting, perhaps historic for Sonoma county– not for what they did, but for what they didn't do. In the immediate aftermath of this meeting, Santa Rosa announced a renewed attack on the homeless at 6th street. The people in tents, sheltered from the rain, are to be helped by being evicted and scattered, so they can enjoy new shelter digs where available, whether they can stand shelters or not; and so they can get lots of great services they'd want if they only knew what was good for them. That announcement, deftly delivered on the sly, is an apt coda to the wary uncertainty I felt about intentions during the whole joint meeting. I couldn't help sensing the other shoe hadn't dropped. The feeling defines the evening for me.
It wasn’t the content of the meeting, which was slippery and earnest, with the ritual nodding in unison about progress and challenge, using interchangeable phrases and broad-brushed topics to parade, one at a time, the officials' senses of urgency. All very normal. But a much larger, entirely unreasonable proportion of the meeting time than usual was spent on such catharsis and good-cheer whitewash. A month into this, and they still seem stunned. In the almost two hours before public comment, almost nothing tangible or actionable was said. Vanishingly few pointed or intelligent questions by officials; controversy either banned from view or seen as nonexistent; no clear demarcation of approaches or mention of specific risks. No discussion of agriculture (or business at all), or examples of crisis/finance/homeless excellence from elsewhere, or the roughest of detail on homelessness status/plans, or a hint of financing scenarios (in an involved financial context.) About a dozen black and brown faces in the crowd total, counting photographers (the half-dozen or so Latino commissions Sonoma county maintains are needing pay raises, apparently, or they had the night off. Too bad; they all missed the thin, impromptu old-white-liberal cheer and applause about the annexation of Roseland.) OH, I forgot (the mayor intoned at one point), it's a historic meeting of the council and supervisors, like, I don't– in my 27 years– have we even done this bef– I mean, wow– y'all, this is a big day. And look, you were here for it, wow. We're being momentous. Just by sitting here, with our name tags on. And you're going to have a li'l ol' part of it all rub off on you, too, just you wait. I mean, look at all the cameras.
About a quarter of us didn't have seats, and the room was full, at capacity: gawd help us if they'd've actually advertised the meeting adequately, so that a reasonable amount of people had come (total was probably about 250 or so, roughly one for every 2,000 adult citizens.) First, after the predictable intonements of historicity and urgency and unification, we stared together at the video of a re-virgining of a residential lot (in Wikiup, I think). It went on for a few minutes, from nice angles, courtesy of a drone pilot. The lot was getting watered down and smoothed over, and it was all better, it'll have a house on it probably in a few business days, bam; that's how we roll, it was almost inferred; we've, like, done shit like this up and down California and to infinity and beyond ad nauseum, this is gonna succeed like you're not gonna even want to beg me to stop being sick of suc–
To anyone other than a Sonoma county native, the video would've been boring and stupid; we were all hushed and excited, naturally pleased to see something/anything that didn’t look like a scene from the zombie apocalypse. We all tacitly agreed this was good news, like the first tendril making its way to the surface, not even green yet. Bad stuff all gone. Deadline in two weeks, by the way, for people to fill out their permission slips for the re-virgined lots, you're fools if you don't sign up to be so smoothly unyuckified...yet only a third of the lot owners have agreed so far– no discussion on these 3,000+ non-responses as a problem, no discussion of any related action items. A two-foot-high stack of the permission forms were dumped on the greeter desk during the meeting, and were left there after the greeter was gone. I saw them as I left. Give them to your friends!, let's all move on this. Like, together.
With the cleanup proceeding so clearly miraculously well (nothing else about the cleanup- high-level milestone steps, etc.– were mentioned in this "update," other than one unreadable slide which seemed to be designed to convey it was too complicated for laymen to involve themselves), and a happy, high-level smudge in place of even the teensiest timing or data or risk or cost detail, there were very few questions asked by our representatives, none difficult. I'm afraid I don't remember what the FEMA fellow said during his five minutes, sorry. Discussion then swerved to agenda item 2, the barest of skeletons to hang a county's hopes on: hey y'all, we might be able to raise money in a new, cool way, prolly save some money (oh, really??) doing it in this zippysnake way we can't fully explain here, it's so complicated, wish we could, but it'll be waaay better than a bond measure, it's hella modern, moguls figured out how to get something for nearly nothing that hardly anybody pays for, just the people who benefit, in 90 easy payments (2x/year for 45 years, out of victim's future taxes). At this mess of pottage, a mild bit of musical chairs logically before we're all nodding in unison again; token symbolic/clueless objections/concerns, to project earnestness, no numbers or forecasts in sight or asked for. More nods in unison.
I left the meeting having no faith that our leaders had a firm sense of direction or priority. Platitudes were used like Survivor tokens through the three agenda items (cleanup status, financing, homelessness status.) No initial impressions of costs or options of any of it, nor basic scenarios, nor even a broadbrush breakdown of the 2-4+ billion cost estimates. No sources and uses of funds, as it's so embarrassingly, starkly termed in the real world; no sense how it all might merge with or work with or overlap with other private or public state/federal funds or loans.
We did get a 'fire subcommittee' of leaders that we need to make decisions and coordinate research (actually set up before the meeting and announced), with at least two members (Julie Combs, Susan Gorin) who will hopefully help us balance prudence, clarity, and aggressive action the way we must to pull this off well
(think planning department...and who is this fire subcommittee's chair? That'll end up vital, and wasn't mentioned.) This is a group that needs to be watched, bless their earnest little hearts: here is a whole new level of challenge beyond the usual of managing large vineyard developments and kowtowing to NIMBY annoyance from homeless people under a bridge in winter. I see reams of hours sitting with those 5 in our future; or perhaps we'll meekly let them get away with closed or 'informal' (non-public) sessions. Are we as citizens up to the task of managing these oft-errant officials on the biggest task of their political careers?
Public comment eventually did befall our representatives. We're the equivalent of a used condom at public meetings: we're what's left over after the excitement of earnest pronouncements, and muted assurances of re-electability. Cue the practiced pallor of distraction and irritation so common on the supervisors during public comment time; you can watch them shut down mentally as it begins. No one could be pleased, it seemed, even in these dark times, that we have so many who wish to share often carefully wrought ideas, on such an important subject. Instead, it was addressed as a mandatory above-average public management nightmare that all these people wanted to speak– and 90 seconds, as Santa Rosa's mayor assured us in a scolding tone, after not even attempting to hide his usual exasperation at the speaker count, is more than enough to convey whatever the hell it is that a citizen who's going to be ignored anyway can have to say.
The controlling and shaming tone of the mayor; the hurry and bluster over every ten seconds of delay (OMG, she's going to try to get her written statement's last paragraph out! Who does she think she is?); the chiding insistence that the lords and ladies weren't to be impeded in their offices by more than 90 seconds by any given citizen, and that number not a bit slapdash, and not to be appended to or, heaven forbid, extended by applause or noise of any kind. Courtesy is the lubricant of administrative miracles, with disorder and delay the very ribs of devilry, and he wasn’t going to have it. And this schoolmarming by our betters was tolerated and obeyed by us and the officials alike as the norm, even when it went so far as the mayor saying that we “were taking away time” from other citizens if we made for unnecessary delays from speaker or non-speaker extended chatter, or questions, or consternations, or concerns. Think a moment: did he mean he was going to not allow the final speaker, or have the last guy only speak 17 seconds because other citizens wasted 73 seconds total, with reactions and opinions and other devilry, and recompense had to follow upon the public? Was he doing the math, like a soccer ref, keeping track of penalty delays and subtracting? Or maybe it was one of his assistants…what the fuck is it about public service that makes us nearly instantly so incurious and know-it-all, so incapable of sensing whom and why we serve, even when those we serve are fighting ruin and worse? Why, the instant one is elevated to speak on behalf of the People, do we lose the ability to sit still and pay attention to the gold, dross, rumor, silver, and chattel that comprises the minds of the mix of concerned, involved citizens? Where the fuck do people get off not only thinking we're supposed to put up with that shit from a public official, but we're to like it, to reward it with obedience and respect? I will not; I cannot.
I say that, and yet, in an important way, we were no better than this rude, thoughtless mayor. Of course our homeless are to be swept away, to somewhere invisible; we're getting sucked right into this cattle chute that’s so alluring at the moment. We might ascribe our activists’ joint and several silences at the meeting to the civic unity we all want, to commit ourselves as a team and solve a grave emergency well. Instead, I fear we’re simply well schooled, like those who stayed away and those who always stay silent, thinking their voice doesn’t matter. We were afraid to seem as crazy or impractical as Peter, the vegetarian/evangelical/conspiracist, who stormed out in the middle, after a God-tinged pronouncement about faithlessness and hypocrisy and Article 21. I only hope we don't look back in a year and realize that his was the nearest to the right response of all of us. We should be frightened much more easily than we are out of this meekness when our public servants mix this imperious dominion with such a mush of do-gooder smarminess. Which of us stood and cried, "Are you still planning on destroying the homes at 6th street?" And which of us, hearing that, would've shouted along, until they had to answer a simple fucking question, one that they knew we would ask if we knew the depths of their manipulation? And what would we have done if they had answered yes? Would we have boo'd for 30 seconds, and murmured to ourselves about fighting them some coming day, on some related subject? What good, exactly, would any of that do for the homeless under the 6th street bridge, who lose their home next Tuesday? They risk their health and all their comfort in this fight against inequality: what do I risk when I speak out?
Quiet we were, though, and patient, through what on balance ended up a waste of time, outside of much of the public commentary, a couple of decent official's questions, and one or two practical statements. The citizen's reward for our individual attention, care, and consideration was that 90 seconds we had to speak at the supervisors while they dealt with other issues (as is their wont. Most of the councilpersons, in contrast, were relatively quite attentive.) For the supervisors don't see it as their job to listen during public comment, much less communicate; their presence is what we pay for, no more. In the shadow of disaster, that disrespect and inattentiveness is a terrible trait to exhibit, with an unknown new spike of risk slathered atop the risk we've constantly dealt with from it. Supervisors don't have an alternate magic or telepathic means of gaining the mind of the citizenry during emergency, when a sense of reality at the ground level is so urgent and so hard to see. Or do they seek the minds of others behind the scenes instead, with thoughts that seem more worthy?
An *utter* lack of discussion or engagement with any citizen, for or against any suggestion, no matter how prepared the speaker, or how experienced, or professional, or pointed, or pertinent. No questions: "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your last." "How do you think we should finance this, then?" "Will you speak with me after, please?" No comments, stern or kind; not a one. No spoken thank yous I heard, other than the one used unremittingly as a broom by the mayor, to scoot the unwashed rapidly away when their widow’s mite of time had vanished. No recommendations explicitly acknowledged as helpful, or important. No notes taken of ideas, not that I could see; no sum up of any ideas, no agenda or potential agenda items proffered from any citizen words. No criticism, pointed or poor, answered with even a word.
None of the many excellent points about process, finance, direction, concerns or priority brought up in public commentary will be reflected in the minutes, either, for us to take up as a cause, between events. Just the names of the speakers will show in minutes, like the names of the long-dead on tombstones, the rest of their story lost forever. No human interaction with the People even in crisis, beyond that required by a jaundiced interpretation of the Brown Act, with the common twisting of its brilliant, clear first two paragraphs, where two-way communication and clarity as to the officials' minds is spoken of as the hallmark of a democratic republic, with public comment time as the principle's chief diadem. No; instead, the hurried, impatient tones of a man beyond his depth, shuffling us along.
It may go swimmingly from here; I just doubt it. It's hard to not feel nervous about the disorganization, the lack of useful handholds of information, and the willfully impatient, removed attitude of our representatives. I see a government poised to turn to counsel far from the citizenry, with the predictable waste, cruelty, and delay.
Like the out-of-state homeless consultant, a hero beribboned while I was asleep, apparently, who has been around the block so many times that he knows everything (he's been to Houston!, he fixed Houston). This guy made his visual interpretation of our local homeless and mental health and drug/alcohol help, our Latino and indigenous and women’s services and shelters and city responses to poverty and inequality, which have many, many fine dimensions, look like a homeless management crisis only he can fix, while he cluck-clucked about marching to lousy drummers and urged a vague, miraculous "consolidation" (fully 3/4 of the listed "silos" will not, cannot, must not, be wiped away or smushed into other things– and why only list two city councils?, he could've made, like, 11 little city council silos, made us look hella more jangled and skittish– a missed opportunity on his hit job.)
For my money, that guy was a classically scary McNamara type, to be shrunk from. No details out of him, of course– not needed; we're being high level here, being strategic– just a clean, strong thrust about waste and mismanagement and efficiency, and a useless fucking diagram of jumbled mumbly-circles (without even an "after", streamlined and snazzy version of the diagram bothered with! Pfft.) TONS of money will be saved, you see, when we stop all this hurdy-gurdy homelessness money from leaking into the pockets of misguided hippies and tricksters, none of whom ever fixed Houston. There's no boss here in SoCo! It's madness! I've never seen it so badly organized in all my years (he actually said that, the numbskull.) There'll be one desk, presumably, finally, for any issue touching upon homelessness– ladies, crime, mental health, affordable housing, drugs, training, families, physical health, jobs, you name it– one guy, and one big, awkward, all-fitting sign: SOCOHOMELESSNESS ET AL-R-US-24-HRS-MORE IS LESS. You just go on in, talk to the guy, he does it all, a fucking GENIUS (and cheap), it's gonna be one stop, no waste, you come out wit h a home or your money back just like in Houston...listening to that manipulative fool and his eager disciple, one could sense the risk of a massive restructuring that can justify and twist "consolidation" into cost-cutting, "streamlining", giant dumbass inflexible shelter projects, or anything you can sell in 10 syllables or less. That schtick felt like about 3/4 bullshit, and it comes with a free bonus of many opportunities to obfuscate the desperate need for massive, creative, aggressive, many-pronged, long-term investment. Hopefully, mostly through NGO's we have cross-cooperating readily now, so it doesn't implode on itself in an orgy of new and big and crazy.
Our officials can turn to the usuals, as well. Our tourism interests, say, who are so good at eliminating homeless people from sight via police or politician. Or maybe our elected officials will listen to the developers, so eager to spit out their thin tithe of their developments as affordable housing that aren't at all affordable, who gladly pay the bribes of monstrous fees for the privilege, tacking them gaily onto the price of the “affordable units.” Or bond peddlers may get their ear, with far-flung, slimy precedents, in their new or old clothes (hint: the new structure they were selling is essentially a specialized bond issuance, just a different security/backing type, with awesome fees for investment banks and crazy long amortization for delayed payback. Might work, but limited in potential size; mostly looks like a politically expedient way of immaturely avoiding the need to immediately mount the case for a very large bond issuance. Which will come soon enough. I doubt they'll be able to raise near enough with such a structure. Stay tuned.)
Why should these, our old moneyed masters, lose their place at the table merely over crisis? As Peter the evangelist might say right about now, we are being sent forth as sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents. Greg Fearon tried to say to them, in his 90 seconds, that this is the time to listen closely to us, to hew to the citizenry. Alas, our first tangible insight into their mind is that they seem to have timed the announcement of the 4th/5th/6th street purge so it couldn't conflict with the smooth jazz we heard all night about togetherness and courtesy and brevity– precisely to avoid hearing the mind of the People.
It appears our world is still to be arranged for us in back rooms. One day on, I already deeply regret being so damn polite. What the heck was I doing sitting there like a backbencher, sotto voce with my frustrations? People ten seats away couldn't hear me at my loudest. Was I saving my political capital for when it might count, for when I can wrangle a first-name basis with them, speak softly, and be respected enough to be heard? What was I thinking?