Other than keeping a tight grip on the public purse strings, a local elected official has no job more important than deciding land-use issues.
And no job more difficult — particularly in times of economic uncertainty.
"Jobs," intoned the stickers worn by supporters of an expanded Wal-Mart at Thursday's meeting of the Rohnert Park Planning Commission. And though the commissioners' job was limited to focusing narrowly on technical details of an environmental impact report, the impact of other "jobs" weighed heavily in the debate.
"There are so many people out of work, and Wal-Mart is going to put new jobs" in the community, said Betty Overstreet, who traveled from Santa Rosa to tell Rohnert Park planners how to vote.
It's true; there are so many people out of work — despite another news story this week that Sonoma County is leading the state in job creation.
"Enormous progress has been made here," Jerry Nickelsburg, a senior economist at UCLA, said at the annual State of the County event on Wednesday.
But that doesn't relieve the pressure on local officials to support economic development — almost any kind of economic development. At a time when housing starts are a dim memory, downtown storefronts stand empty and local budgets are stretched paper-thin, members of city councils are increasingly reluctant to let anything stand in the way of new business and new jobs.
Meanwhile, ideas that came into favor during better economic times — such as environmental sustainability and living wages — get lost in desperate search for jobs and tax revenue.
That will be the atmosphere in which the Wal-Mart expansion issue arrives at the Rohnert Park City Council. And, given that the council approved it on a 4-1 vote in 2010, it's likely that Wal-Mart will find a receptive audience this time, as well.
Still, Wal-Mart's promise of 85 new jobs in the Friendly City is an illusion. Because Wal-Mart is a net taker, not a net giver. It represents the American trend that has large businesses consolidating into huge corporations that offshore their expenses to low-paid manufacturing jobs in China and the Third World and suck profits out of local communities to benefit owners and stockholders. Sure, it provides jobs — it has more than 2 million employees — but it leans toward part-time, low-paying jobs with minimal benefits.