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Council Clashes Over New Chain Store Advisory Group

Following the heated debate over a new Staples store, Sonoma City Council voted to form an advisory group to lead discussion on limiting big-business. But personalities clashed while staffing the group.

Following the heated debate over , Sonoma City Council voted Monday night to form an advisory group to lead discussion on limiting big-business - but, personalities and ideology clashed while staffing the group.

The item, which was placed on the council agenda by Mayor Laurie Gallian along with Councilman Steve Barbose, was a follow-up to discussion of banning or restraining new chain stores within city limits.

The council failed, during the April 4 meeting, to create interim ordinance amending the city's general plan to block Staples opening, after the legislation was found to be last-minute and legally questionable.

"There was a cry from the public...it was the one question that everyone asked me," said Gallian. "How come you have no input on this, how come we have no input on this."

"I'm out there in the community and Sonoma is seen as being both business friendly," said Councilman Ken Brown. "The complaints came from small business-people that felt that their livelihood was being jeopardized, and they're right."

The proposed advisory panel - which the council limited to no more than three meetings before reporting back with suggestions - would lead discussion and create a informed plan for the specifics of further chain-store legislation in Sonoma.

But, for the first time in the big-box debate, public commenters - such as David Cook, founder of Cook Vineyard Management, who made an unsuccessful run for council in the 2010 election - mostly argued that Sonoma's current process works well enough.

"I went to today, I ate at , I think that what the council should do is let the process work, you have a process, I would not go further on," said Cook. 

"This is still a capitalistic society, and if someone thinks they can make a profit by coming into this town - whether it's Staples - and we've got an empty building, we should lease it to them," said Stan Pappas. "Let the market decide what's right and what's wrong."

"If tomorrow I bought a franchise and decided to put it on the Sonoma Plaza, there would be no mechanism to stop-it - as long as I had pretty gold arches, maybe wood," said Kelso Barnett, who serves on the city's Design Review Commission, and was instrumental in limiting the .

"Kelso, if you wanted to open a McDonalds on the Plaza you would have to go through a use permitting process," replied Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Jennifer Yankovitch. "It feels like an incredibly large formulaic discussion, we have many local owners of formula stores...many of them would probably fall under this discussion."

The advisory panel moved forward in a 3-2 vote, with Sanders and Rouse in dissent. But, personalities fumed when Barbose motioned for Gallian and himself - the two supporters of the advisory council - to serve as the two city council representatives to the group.

"Well as my dad said, that's a fine how-do-you-do," says Sanders. "I'm the one who serves on the economic development committee, I own a business…I also have a different viewpoint, I thought that you guys wanted different viewpoints."

"The business expertise is sitting to your right," said Councilman Tom Rouse, gesturing towards himself and Sanders. "I'm not sure you have a cross-section of views with your selection."

Respondents bristled at the suggestion.

"I don't think being a small business owner makes you the expert," said Brown.

"I do not appreciate being put out for not having business experience," said Gallian, who recounted several years of retail work and business management experience, before agreeing to step down from her appointment to the committee, to speed the process along.

The council subbed in Rouse for Gallian; the motion passed unanimously.  "I find it sort of ironic that I'm on the committee, though I don't support it," said Rouse.

In addition to the public officials on the group, Brown asked that the council add two members of the public to serve on the committee.

The process of appointing two members of the public "could take months," said Sanders. Brown replied by nominating two audience members: Ben Boyce, a vocal advocate of Community Impact Reports who directs the Sonoma County Accountable Development and Barnett.

Both Sanders and Rouse objected to nominating two people with clear public viewpoints.

"Well I think we should have more women on this committee, and I see a woman out there who wants to be on it," said Sanders, gesturing to a raised hand in the audience.

"I think this has become a joke, and I'm not interested in exulting that," replied Brown.

The council voted 3-2, with Sanders and Rouse dissenting, to appoint Boyce and Barnett to the public seats on the committee - which will also be comprised of two members of the City Council, two members of the Planning Commission and Chamber of Commerce CEO Jennifer Yankovitch, along with a to-be-appointed member of the chamber's Economic Development Advisory Committee (EDAC).

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