The City of Sonoma has always had oligarchs, powerful people of great wealth and the inclination to use it. First among these was General Mariano Vallejo, the Mexican General who owned much of Northern California, including the town of Sonoma. He laid out the city, subdivided the land and was, by all accounts, a benevolent oligarch.
In the era of the Americanos following his reign, new oligarchs emerged or emigrated to our area. You can find their names on a number of the buildings surrounding the Plaza – Hotz and of course, Sebastiani; oligarchs often find great pleasure in seeing their name on large buildings. Building businesses and then putting their money back into the community by building public benefit projects, like the movie theatre and hospital, were expressions of their benevolence.
Of course, oligarchs come in all flavors. Over the past 150 years, the rich and powerful have varied between benevolent, saavy, and ruthless, and so it is today. We see benevolence in support for the local hospital, school district programs and the Boys and Girls Club. We see saavy in board seats and financial contributions to non-profits to help build political support for development projects. Finally, ruthless oligarchs resort to spin, threats, lawsuits and intimidation to get their way. Whatever flavor, Sonoma remains under the control and influence of a very small group, mostly men, who through the exercise of their wealth and power bend the community to their will.
Rarely can the efforts of ordinary citizens successfully impede the ambitions of oligarchs. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: money provides access to political power, which in turn influences policy and governmental decision-making. This, in a nutshell, is the story of America, and Sonoma is no different. Historically, Sonoma has been considered “small potatoes” as compared to other cities like Rohnert Park or Petaluma, and thus has been spared the ravages of big box development, shopping malls and massive housing developments. The 20-year UGB passed in 2000, over the objections of the oligarchs, was one rare victory of the citizens.
Overall, the “system in place” favors the rich and powerful through the promulgation of laws and policies emanating at the state and national level. The system feels “rigged” and fuels dissatisfaction of working-class and middle-class voters, who view politicians as corrupt and bought off by wealthy campaign contributors. Accordingly, half the eligible voters in America stay home and don’t vote. Locally, our voting rate is higher, but citizen participation in public policy, setting budgets, and establishing spending priorities is very low. Sadly, people don’t seem terribly interested unless it’s their own “ox getting gored.”
It takes tremendous effort and stamina to be an engaged citizen. In most respects it’s a serious job, requiring repeated attendance at lengthy meetings, many hours of reading and study, the will to show up and the courage to speak out. And as the ambitions of oligarchs expand, so does the potential workload of citizens; unlike the oligarchs, who employ teams of highly-paid consultants, citizens have to do the work themselves, and with comparatively little money. The “system in place” has become so technically-based and expert-driven it’s often impenetrable to the ordinary citizen.
Nonetheless, unless Sonoma is prepared to bow down to its oligarchs in supplication, citizen engagement remains the only answer. Admittedly, no building will have your name on it.