Sebastopol planning commission makeup under review
By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, February 12, 2021
The Sebastopol Planning Commission is facing a different question of design — itself.
The city council evaluated the planning commission’s composition at the Feb. 2 Sebastopol City Council meeting as one possible way to boost civic engagement with locals inside and outside city limits.
The agenda report referred to the CoMission survey presented at the Jan. 19 city council meeting, in which some respondents expressed an interest in more community participation, shared by council members in its subsequent dialogue.
One way the city could increase the public’s involvement is by opening up more seats on the commission to people who live in the 95472 ZIP code but outside city limits, Planning Director Kari Svanstrom said.
As it stands, the planning commission consists of eight members appointed by the city council, including one optional alternate position commissioners could do without, some council members said.
According to the agenda report, the Sebastopol Municipal Code says the commission must have at least five members, but “shall consist of seven members or such other members as the City Council shall, from time to time, determine by resolution.”
Svanstrom said the planning commission structure requires everyone to be either a city resident or the owner of a business within Sebastopol, except for one seat that can be held by someone from the unincorporated 95472 ZIP code without business in the city.
“I will say most people don’t realize they’re not in the city. They identify very strongly with the city and that they’re from Sebastopol,” she said.
The planning director said one option of many is to add another seat available to 95472 ZIP code residents for eight full members, or nine commissioners including the alternate, but that opens to the door to tie votes.
Another option is to maintain seven full members, but free up a second seat open to locals in the 95472 ZIP code, Svanstrom said.
The council weighed whether the commission that advises the council on development within city limits warranted more representation from outside the city limits, but when all was said and done, the council decided to seek the planning commission’s recommendations before making a formal decision.
Paul Fritz, vice chair of the planning commission, opposed the idea of pulling up a ninth seat to the table because the commission’s meetings are already drawn out.
“Imagine if you had nine city council members, how long this meeting would be,” he said.
According to Fritz, 95472 ZIP code residents don’t need to become planning commissioners to get in on the action, but can instead attend meetings, send emails and submit comments. The existing seat available to those in the outer region “is already fairly generous,” he said.
Fritz recommended letting the alternate member take an opening created by a new commissioner moving outside Sebastopol to drop down to seven members.
“And I would actually encourage you moving down to five, eventually,” he added.
The agenda report for the discussion said the council could also allow the alternate position to fall away through attrition, since the planning commission is unusually large and commissioners have historically told city staff these aspects are challenging.
“There have been some issues with continuity if an alternate is there for the first part of something but then they don’t get to do the final vote and vice versa, on that,” Svanstrom said.
Community member Kyle Falbo also spoke against adding another full member that could thwart reaching consensus.
Vice Mayor Sarah Glade Gurney shared that she and Councilmember Patrick Slayter were former planning commissioners.
“From my experience, seven is a good number,” she said, favoring two of the seven seats be open to those outside city limits.
The issue is the council does not get enough applicants for spots that open up, Gurney said. “And in limiting the pool to only one seat for a 95472 community member, we have often fallen short of a competitive application process,” she said. “So, I would be interested in making sure that we have the opportunity for wide representation and wider choice in our appointment process.”
She compared Sebastopol to two other cities allowing people who don’t live within their boundaries onto their planning commissions, Cloverdale and Sonoma.
“We’re all in the same circumstance where we have people that just don’t live in our narrow little confines but very, very strongly identify with our communities in their practices every day and in their hearts,” she said.
Slayter sided with Gurney on retaining seven members for the sake of perspective, despite the prolonged meetings. But he was less inclined to forgo other restrictions to the body’s composition, calling for a city resident majority because the city does not have the same chance to affect county policy in the unincorporated area.
“We can advocate, we can ask, we can lean on people with connections, but we don’t have a vote when it comes to land-use and policies that are just over our border,” he said. “And I think that’s difficult for me to square up with us providing that voice for people who do not live or have skin in the game with businesses in Sebastopol.”
Councilmember Diana Rich said she wanted to know the planning commission’s views on whether most members should be residents and other limitations on business representation and would defer to its members.
Councilmember Neysa Hinton and Mayor Una Glass agreed with Slayter on having a majority of commissioners from within city limits. Hinton said she was “surprised” to discover the rules so far would allow all members to be business owners living outside city limits, though Svanstrom said the commission doesn’t usually have many non-resident business owners.
Gurney said the council could simply factor this into the equation since the council already appoints all the commissioners.
Glass, Rich and Hinton all said they thought the alternate position was not needed, but the council decided to seek recommendations from the planning commission itself before decision-making. Gurney suggested the alternate could take part as a regular member of the audience and only take on a speaking role if an absence actually occurred to spare the commission the added dialogue.
“This is advice to the planning commission of what we’re thinking, but I want to hear from them,” Glass said. “Maybe I’m wrong. They’re the people sitting there doing the planning on a biweekly basis.”
This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com