Sonoma official wants to evaluate effects of proposed hotel limits

Sonoma's city manager wants the authority to hire a consultant to evaluate a proposed ballot measure that would limit hotel expansion, before a single petition in support of the initiative has yet to hit the streets.

City Manager Carol Giovanatto said Friday she wants to be prepared if proponents of the ballot measure get the signatures required to qualify it for a special election.

But Giovanatto said politics is not motivating her request to possibly seek outside help preparing a report on the measure's potential impacts on everything from city finances to its consistency with the city general plan.

"It's just being prepared so that we can give the council the best information possible, so that if they get the ballot measure they will be able to make an informed decision," she said.

If the measure qualifies for the ballot the council will have the option of scheduling an election or adopting the ordinance outright.

Giovanatto's request, which she will make to the City Council at its meeting Monday night, does not have a dollar amount attached to it. She said she has the authority as city manager to enter into contracts without council approval.

The council could ask that the analysis be generated only if proponents of the ballot measure succeed in getting at least 10 percent of the city's registered voters to sign the petition. That process could take months. The city would then have 30 days to complete the impact document under election law.

Giovanatto said city staff did not request the process with the most recent ballot measure that sought a sales tax increase in the city. She said that was because city leaders spearheaded that effort.

Mayor Ken Brown said Friday he supports Giovanatto's current request with regard to the hotel ordinance.

"I think it's the prudent thing to do. I think the city needs to be prepared in a real practical way," he said.

The ballot measure would cap any new hotel, or expansion of an existing one, to 25 rooms unless the city's hotel occupancy rate over the previous calendar year exceeded 80 percent. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.

The Preserving Sonoma Committee, which includes former mayor Larry Barnett and several political activists, contends that the measure is necessary to protect the city's quality of life from what the group considers to be major hotel development.

Opponents say it would stymie economic growth and result in a de facto ban on most hotels by setting an impossibly high occupancy standard.

Only one such project currently is in the city's planning pipeline — a hotel proposed near the plaza that in its most recent incarnation included plans for a three-story, 59-room hotel with two restaurants, a health club and spa, event center and 2,800 square feet of retail space. It is proposed by Darius Anderson, a Sacramento lobbyist and principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Anderson did not return a call Friday seeking comment.

Giovanatto acknowledged that the proposed hotel ordinance is the "hot-topic issue" for the city. But she demurred when asked whether she thought it could be potentially harmful for the city.

"I haven't done the analysis yet," she said.

The issue has put political heat on city leaders.

Brown confirmed Friday that he asked Giovanatto to write a guest editorial for the Sonoma Index-Tribune in which the city manager contended that council members are legally and ethically prevented from taking a public stand on Anderson's proposed hotel.

She also scheduled an agenda item for Monday night for the city's attorney to discuss the same issue. "There's no hidden agendas. It's really just informational," Giovanatto said.

Brown said he has been taking "flak" for his refusal to to sign on in support of the proposed ballot measure.

He said proponents of the measure include his political allies on issues in the past, including in 1999 when Brown helped lead the fight against a 105-room resort proposed on a hillside that forms the city's backdrop. Brown was serving on the council back then.

Brown on Friday said he supports the right for people to seek change through the initiative process. But he said it's "highly unlikely" he'll sign a petition in support of the measure that is before the city now.

"I don't believe in it," he said. "I believe in the general plan as it is. I am trusting my council members and our staff — that we will make the right decision."

(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)