To sit with Mayor Joanne Sanders over a morning coffee as she reflects on her eight years of public service is to appreciate the role of dedicated vision that helps keep Sonoma such a rare and special place. “I’m steadfast in the task of taking care of the city,” she says, “and I never made any decision for anyone but for the benefit of the people – the greatest good for the greatest number.”
Over the years, the “greatest number” did not always agree, and many of the decisions – not least of which, the decision not to run again – have been hard.
Early on, as a newcomer to the council, she found she stood alone in her opposition to Measure C, which would have allowed the hospital to build on local farmland acquired through eminent domain “I didn’t believe in condemning the Leveroni property,” she says. “This is a small town where we cherish our history and we cherish our community members who have built the community. And a big family doesn’t have their property condemned – how can you do that?” The issue remained a polarizing one for several years until the hospital came up with a workable plan for building the needed expansion on its own land. “It was a bold move at the time, for me,” she says.
Land use issues are particularly significant for her, as they help create or maintain the identity of the city. “Remember the dance academy?” she smiles, ruefully. The Sonoma Academy of Dance and Arts, then located in a “mixed use” residential area on East Napa Street, was denied a request for an events permit, which the business said was needed to generate revenue to survive. Energetic public comment rose up on both sides. Sanders, who voted against the permit, remembers “a whole council chamber filled with kids and moms” pleading for the academy. “Those were my friends. My daughter went to that school!” But she voted it down because the permit, attached to the land, would carry into the future and subsequent use by different owners could not be predicted.
“Leaders have to disappoint their people sometimes,” says Sanders, but should be careful to disappoint them only at a rate they can handle. “If you disappoint them more than they can handle, you’re not a leader anymore,’ cause you’re not in office!” she laughs.
Some of her decisions have been hard, but her dedication to fiscal responsibility, to women, and to the character and history of Sonoma has never wavered. “We have more women in key positions than when I came into office, and we have a smaller, more efficient department,” she says. “I feel very much a part of having played a key role in a lot of the efficiencies and on the constant push on the financial side of things.”
One efficiency she is proud of may seem small to everyone but the individual property owner. “We eliminated a tax assessment district in a newer neighborhood in the southeastern part of town,” she says. “The neighborhood had a lighting and park assessment district that was put in play when the developer wanted to develop the land. It was about a $320 a year assessment per house.” She felt it unfair that one neighborhood was being taxed for their parks and lighting, while others had that included as part of their property tax.
There are numbers of other accomplishments she’s proud of: the Local Historian, the Montini Open Space, the Maysonnave House, the Sonoma Garden Park, the Graffiti Abatement Program, and the Renewable Energy focus that has expanded in the last eight years.
As she looks to the future, Sanders steps daintily around the paradox of tourism: people want to come because the place is quaint and beautiful – but too many people and their cars make the place unworkable; people want to come to a quaint and beautiful place that also has Michelin star restaurants and high end stores – but too many high end businesses drive the locals into their houses grumbling; businesses can’t thrive without the tourist income – but they can’t allow tourism to ruin what people love about the town.
“It’s always a balancing act,” she says, making sure that growth and tourism, for example, are encouraged, while the character of the place is preserved. “As a family women – and my parents live here in the city too – I’m interested in making sure Sonoma continues to be a place that people can keep coming back to, generation after generation, and feel it’s not the tourists, it’s theirs.”