It’s easy to focus on the important tasks that the city of St. Helena hasn’t gotten done, such as the General Plan update and a decision about the Adams Street property.
However, it’s just as instructive to look at what the city did accomplish in 2017, which lays the groundwork for greater progress this year and beyond.
Councilmember Paul Dohring presented us with a list of 39 accomplishments from last year. We encourage the city to print some form of the list in its newsletter and, starting next January, to present a “State of the City” report enumerating what happened last year, what’s happening now, and what people should expect in the coming year.
The big-ticket accomplishments on Dohring’s list got us thinking about how to get things done in St. Helena. In two cases – water rates and Adams Street — the city has stumbled out of the gate before finding a winning three-step strategy that looks something like this. (Keep in mind that this is for setting major policies, not evaluating individual projects.)
1. Lay the groundwork behind the scenes. Gather baseline data so that everyone is working from the same data, and then come up with some basic options.
2. Even before step 1 concludes, get the community involved. We’re not talking about a couple of people who meet a few times in a conference room, with little public involvement. We’re talking about diverse committees holding well-publicized, well-attended meetings that actively engage with stakeholders and other members of the public, where people can express their views without strict time limits.
3. Once the options have been evaluated and a consensus has emerged, pass on recommendations to the council. If the process has been done correctly, the council should have an easy decision.
That process worked miracles with water rates. The council initially moved too quickly, going from step 1 (a rate study) to step 3 (council action) and passing rate hikes that didn’t have broad community consensus.
But when the council went back to step 2, appointed the Ad Hoc Utility Rate Committee, and turned critics into collaborators, the result was a new rate structure that everybody could live with. Trust in the council, which had been damaged by the precipitous passage of the old rates, was restored.
We’re seeing a similar pattern play out with the Adams Street property. When the council was faced with a staff recommendation to team up with a developer last June, the public went apoplectic. The council was forced to slow down, but the damage was already done – the residual anger contributed to the resentment that fueled the recall attempt against Mayor Alan Galbraith.
But, just like with the water rate situation, the council reconsidered, commissioning a comprehensive study of the city’s facilities (step 1) and appointing the SHAPE Committee (step 2).
We’re already seeing another situation where this process could apply: the number of empty storefronts downtown, which seems to be a symptom of a disease nobody quite understands.
Dohring said he and Councilmember Mary Koberstein are investigating the problem by meeting with tenants and landlords (step 1). We envision step 2 as a committee consisting of landlords, merchants, Chamber of Commerce representatives and members of the public.
Is the answer a more robust economic development program in which city staff works with the Chamber to recruit businesses? Or is it, as Dohring suggested, more about revising zoning ordinances and removing impediments that are discouraging potential tenants?
If it’s the latter, adopting the new General Plan will get the ball rolling on an updated zoning ordinance. Dohring expects the General Plan to be adopted this year, with minimal tinkering.
We have all the pieces in place to solve this and other problems. We have a young, talented and stable city staff, led by the admirably even-keeled City Manager Mark Prestwich. We have a council that’s diverse enough to generate meaningful debate but goal-oriented enough not to get bogged down by gridlock.
So as we begin 2018, let’s focus not just on our problems, but on what the city has accomplished and how it has done so. Progress always begins with process.