Like every city in Sonoma County, the City of Sonoma utilizes the City Manager form of government. City managers hold the top administrative position in each city, an organizational model similar to corporations where a Board of Directors (the City Council) employs a CEO (City Manager) to hire, manage, terminate, and otherwise direct the activities of city employees.
It’s an efficient way to run a business organization, but when it comes to government, it’s not perfect. First and foremost, despite being business-like in its organizational model, local government has no competition; it’s a monopoly. If a citizen needs a building permit within city limits, the City of Sonoma is the only game in town; the permitting approval process will take as long as it must and cost as much as it will. Without competing pressure, local government’s response time, cost of service and style of “customer” relations can be less favorable than that of an ordinary business.
Setting policy is City Council business; ideally, the City Manager’s role is administration, implementation and enforcement. When the system works properly, an engaged and involved City Council listens to the community and identifies policies and priorities; having done so, the council then directs the City Manager to make plans and undertake implementation of the council’s goals. During meetings the manager presents progress reports to the council and any appropriate adjustments to plans or timetables are made.
However, not every City Council is terribly engaged or deeply involved. Since council members are most commonly generalists and laypeople when it comes to governance, their experience, capabilities and capacities vary. The business of government must proceed, nonetheless, even if a given council is not up to getting its hands dirty in the day-to-day undertakings of government. In that case, policy development is often initiated by the City Manager and staff, acting in a role more properly suited to elected council members. When a City Council is passive, bureaucratic imperatives can outweigh the needs of the citizenry, and that sometimes leads to trouble.
This brings us to the reason why we elect City Council members. The needs of government and the needs of the citizens are not always the same, and elected officials serve to insure that the needs of the citizens remain paramount in developing goals, policies and regulations. The needs of government must be considered, of course, since government has been constituted to serve the needs of the citizens and must have the support, financial and otherwise, to fulfill that imperative. However, we believe that democracy’s proper balance favors citizens and that the needs of government should be subordinate to the needs of the community whenever possible.
This brings us to the issue of citizenship. Unless the community is engaged and well-informed, elected council members are left to make decisions and set priorities in a vacuum. Successful, local democracy, then, is a three-part system which includes engaged elected officials, capable administration and involved citizens. If any of the three parts falter, the whole system of democracy weakens, like a stool with a wobbly leg.
Much about governance is dry and, frankly, boring. Few citizens can keep up with everything government does or plans to do. When local democracy works, however, it begins with ordinary citizens and community taking time and volunteering to get involved. In other words, sustaining local democracy is up to all of us.