As part of an ongoing series of interviews with community leaders, we checked in last week with Paul Dohring, the “swingman” of the St. Helena City Council.

Dohring himself used the term, borrowed from basketball, to describe his tie-breaking votes on a council that’s often starkly split between Alan Galbraith and Peter White’s analysis-driven, staff-friendly approach and Mary Koberstein and Geoff Ellsworth’s consistent focus on limiting growth.

Dohring brought energy and optimism to our discussion as well as open-mindedness to community ideas for finding workable, positive policy solutions for some of the perennial issues facing St. Helena. Here are some highlights:

The Big Picture

Dohring has cast decisive votes on the Chamber of Commerce contract, the Culinary Institute of America dorms, the funding of the York Creek Dam removal, the Beringer tank farm, and the formation of a committee to study water and sewer rates. He said those votes were based on his understanding of the community’s core values and the ever-delicate balance between quality of life and economic sustainability.

That big-picture approach to governance, coupled with his tendency toward compromise and seeking common ground, explains why Dohring’s votes can fall on either side of the council’s growing count of 2-2 divides.

Adams Street

Dohring said the community, not he nor any other individual, should decide what happens to the Adams Street property, which he called the most important decision that will be made in St. Helena during his tenure. Former City Manager Jennifer Phillips promised an open, public decision-making process, and that’s what St. Helena deserves.

Dohring wants to see a public discussion based on a professional assessment of the city’s facilities. What can be fixed, what needs to be rebuilt, and how much will it all cost? Eight years ago, the community gathered together and created a vision for Adams Street that advocated the building of a number of community facilities, but didn’t identify a funding source. Is that vision still feasible or does it need to be updated?

Dohring correctly noted that any discussion of developing the Adams Street property must recognize the city’s desperate need for cash to fix its substandard public facilities.

Requiring city employees to work in dilapidated facilities like City Hall, the police station and the corporation yard should be a source of embarrassment for our city. It certainly won’t help us retain the competent, motivated staff members who are so essential to good government.

Dohring envisions the Adams Street study process leading to a decision as soon as late fall, which seems a little optimistic to us. But we agree that the council needs to at least set a timeline to determine a course of action soon.

Process

The ad hoc committees that wrestled with the city’s finances and the new water and sewer rates provide a good model for resolving the Adams Street question. Those committees need to be diverse and open to public input.

Government can’t do it all, though. St. Helena residents need to attend public meetings on Adams Street and other topics, educate themselves, and base their opinions on facts, not emotion.

For example, when reacting to a report on the financial problems with the flood project under former city staff, one man tried to link the misdeeds of yesteryear to today’s staff, saying “Same circus, different clowns.” That was an insult to the staff members who are trying to right our financial ship.

Finance

Dohring acknowledged that many residents are dissatisfied with the forensic accountant’s report on the flood project. A lot of people were hoping it would “name names” and hold specific staffers and councilmembers accountable for what happened.

It didn’t, and Dohring said that’s OK. Placing blame and settling old scores feels good and satisfies our righteous anger, but it could cost a fortune in legal expenses and risk defamation lawsuits, especially given the lack of hard evidence. It would also be of questionable value in a close-knit small town.

The one exception Dohring makes is for our former auditors we employed for 23 consecutive years, who should have seen this coming. He suggested the city adopt the common practice of switching auditors every few years. But since there’s no evidence that the mismanagement met the legal definition of “financial damage,” there’s no point in taking former officials to court – as emotionally cathartic as that might sound.

Instead of reliving the last disaster, let’s focus on avoiding another one. Dohring is pushing for city staff to adopt better financial controls and a binding code of ethics.

Think of it as another phase of the ongoing seismic retrofit to protect our financial house from future tremors.

Note: Editorial board member Bonnie Long chaired the Ad Hoc Utility Rate Committee.

(Note: John Ponte resigned from our editorial board after being appointed to the Planning Commission. We thank John for his service and wish him well.)

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