A look back at 12 years on city council

How can one summarize the experience of 12 years on the Sonoma City Council? Well, for one thing my hair has turned gray. And, wait a minute… 12 years ago I had hair! Consider this; 12 years ago councilman-elect Sebastiani was 14 years old! Congratulations on your election, councilman Sebastiani… I will be watching your hair.

Twelve years is a long time, long enough for government (even at its glacial pace) to reflect profound change. Here are a few highlights:

The city budget…
Just after taking office 1994 it was determined, after an agonizingly long audit by a new independent auditor, that the city’s general fund was $1 million in the hole! We were literally out of cash. It took us well over four years to dig our way out under the management and care of then city manager Pamela Gibson. Today, under city manager Mike Fuson’s close attention and the dedication and discipline of his staff and the city council, we have over $6 million in operational, capital and emergency reserves.

Urban sprawl…
In 1994 the city was quickly spreading at the edges, annexing many acres of prime agricultural lands. Despite six years of effort, I never did convince the majority on the council that we should place an urban-growth boundary, or UGB, measure on the ballot, but in 2000 the UGB finally was passed overwhelmingly by the citizens. It stopped the sprawl and improved planning… and it’s worked beautifully. You can tell by the complaints of the developers that they have no land to develop!

The hillsides…
A large portion of the hillsides above Sonoma was subject to a legal pre-19th century lot subdivision, and was vulnerable to development. When I first took office, the council discussed the risk of such development and agreed to try to work something out with the Montini family. It took a decade for things to be resolved, and the city participation has been crucial to the protection of the hillsides. Their preservation has been an enormous achievement.

Development standards…
In 1994 an appeal by a citizen of planning commission decisions was the only way development proposals could make their way to the city council. Remarkable as it seems today, the council was denied any jurisdiction outside of an appeal. Moreover, commercial development could proceed as a matter of right if the zoning designation was in line with the application. Changing the “culture of development” took a long time, and generated a lot of controversy. For my efforts, I was called a “socialist” among other names. In the end, the council unanimously supported the right of the council to review any project, and the idea that commercial development should be placed under much greater oversight and limitations.

When I first took office there was virtually no Internet, few had e-mail, no cell phones existed, paper folders with paper files sat in rows of cabinets, and some financial records were being kept by pencil in ledger books. Looking back, it sounds like the last century…and by golly, it was! It’s an indication of how rapidly things are changing in the world, and though I know many are frustrated with the rate of change, the increased traffic and cost of living, Sonoma still remains the most livable of all Sonoma County cities.

We have a terrific city staff here in Sonoma, and I must thank them all for working so hard to make my job of councilman easier. I have made many friends of city staff, and I am grateful for their support and kindness over the years.

I have also worked with 10 very fine people on the council, and I want to thank them, too. Phyllis Carter, Louis Ramponi, Dick Dorf, Al Mazza, Dick Ashford, Joe Costello, Ken Brown, Doug McKesson, Stanley Cohen and Joanne Sanders. All these folks have given so generously of their time and talent, and whatever ups and downs the council has suffered from time to time, their commitment to the city and its citizens has never been in doubt.

To my supporters… well, what can I say? You elected me three times (once just barely!), and your confidence in me has always been a source of humility and gratitude. I thank you. And to my detractors, (and I’ve had quite a few) … I want to thank you, too. I’ve learned more about courage, my principles and the value of examining my beliefs from you and your criticism than you will ever know.

Finally I thank my wife of 31 years, Norma. Supportive, patient, loving, and critical when need be, Norma has been there for me during every high and every low. She has shared my torments and tirades, successes and accomplishments. I feel so grateful and lucky to have shared my life with her.
When you first get elected to this council it’s easy to think you can rush right in and change things. But the reality is that being on the council changes you. The oath of office is one best not taken lightly. Bearing responsibility for this town works its way deeply into your life. If you let it, it will open your heart, sometimes to be broken, and other times to swell with great joy. Overall, this has been an experience of personal transformation, a magical experience. Serving this community has been one of high points of my life, and a great teaching about what is of true and lasting value in this life.

So, for the benefit particularly of those who are just joining the council, I offer this short poem. I wrote it one night after a marathon midnight council meeting:

You think, dear one, that it’s all about you,
And you’re absolutely right.
Except, of course, to everyone else,
Who think that it’s all about them.

It’s been an honor. Thank you, Sonoma.