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Sonoma County moves to give rural residents greater voice in local government

Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday paved the way for creation of more regional citizens groups designed to give certain unincorporated areas a greater voice in local government and decision making.

The panels are meant to allow more neighborhood-level input and advice on such issues as roads and land-use planning, and result in recommendations to county supervisors, who are the only elected local representatives for many rural areas.

“This is really participatory democracy at its base level,” said Supervisor James Gore, pointing to his experience last year establishing a council for the Mark West area north of Santa Rosa.

While the community does not wish to incorporate, residents there do want to play a larger role in decisions shaping their community, Gore said.

Advisory councils will also help the county better manage small unincorporated communities, where supervisors become “the de facto mayor,” he said.

Supervisors Susan Gorin and Lynda Hopkins indicated they want to establish new councils along the Russian River, the Sonoma Coast and in The Springs area of Sonoma Valley. Some of the same areas - along the river and in Sonoma Valley - were once represented by appointed redevelopment committees, but those entities were dissolved in 2012 when the state eliminated redevelopment agencies.

Plans for advisory panels in other areas of the county also could come forward.

Mark Emmett of the Guerneville Community Alliance said the river area could benefit from an advisory council, particularly when it comes to dealing with the area’s persistent homeless problem.

“It’s the people that have been dealing with some of these issues every day,” Emmett said of those who might be interested in serving on the panel. “That’s basically why places incorporate and they have city council people, because it’s the people that live here, work here, that have a vested interest in what goes on here. It’s just that this area doesn’t really have the voter base to become incorporated. ... This is really the next best thing.”

In addition to Mark West, the Dry Creek Valley has one of the citizens’ groups, known formally as a municipal advisory council. The Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission operates similar to a municipal advisory council, though it was established under a different legal structure, called a joint powers agreement, with the city of Sonoma.

Hopkins ran for 5th District supervisor last year in part on an intent to create more councils. She said Tuesday she surveyed potential voters about the idea while on the campaign trail.

“Whether or not people lived inside city limits or outside city limits ... this had over 80 percent approval,” she said. “There is huge demand and desire for this out among constituents out in west county.”

Under the policies approved by supervisors, municipal advisory councils should consist of no more than seven members, though the county prefers five, all of whom must live within the geographic boundaries of the area for which the group is established. Members, who will be appointed by supervisors, would serve two-year terms with two-term limits, but they can serve again after a break in service.

The adopted policy recommends council meetings be limited to once a month and generally not last over three hours. The councils can’t take positions on candidates or ballot measures, and they must provide an annual report to supervisors. The panels will likely require some support from county staff, including training in public-meeting and conflict-of-interest requirements, as well as administrative work.

“Let’s be very clear about the hand-holding that will be required for each of these efforts,” Gorin said. “When you appoint a body, whether it’s five members or ?seven members, it’s going to take on a life of its own.”

County staff members are expected to return to the board in September after evaluating options for funding and putting together a plan for implementing new councils in communities that want them.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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