Napa Valley influence

Napa Valley Register illustration

For many, mention of the  Bay Area likely conjures images of concrete buildings jetting up into an urban skyline, all placed against the iconic backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.

With a picture such as this in mind, it may come as a surprise that the region’s nexus of power may well have left behind major metropolises such as San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose and instead put down roots right here in rural Napa County.

Despite being home to less than 2 percent of the Bay Area’s total population, Napa County leaders appear to have knack for finding their way to regional prominence.

In only the past few years, Napa officials have been placed at the helm of regional planning, transportation and legislative entities. As a result, they’ve formed relationships with key decision makers and placed local programs in state and national spotlights.

In the words of Supervisor Bill Dodd, who served as the chairman of the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission from 2007 to 2009, heading up a regional entity provides a key resource in governmental dealings, one that goes a long way in getting Napa’s message across.

“When you’re chairman of a regional body, you have credibility,” he said. “When you’re just a member of the board from Napa, sure everyone likes you and wants to talk about wine. But when you’re chair, all of a sudden more respect and more time go toward (Napa’s) issues than otherwise would have.”

In terms of transportation, evidence of the added weight of a chairman’s voice can be seen daily by commuters traveling in and out of Napa County via Jameson Canyon Road, Dodd said.

A project to widen Jameson Canyon Road from two lanes to four and relieve chronic gridlock first received funding under Proposition 1B while Dodd was chairman of MTC.

While bonding for projects across California has since been stalled by the state’s budget problems, Jameson Canyon Road has been listed as a regional priority and recently received $130 million from the California Transportation Commission.

The idea that the statewide commission would view the project in such a positive light is no coincidence, Dodd said.

“As the chair of the MTC, I got to know all 11 decision makers who were on the California Transportation Commission,” he said. Those relationships helped Napa’s projects find their way onto the state’s short list.

Evidence can also be seen in Napa’s most recent housing allocations, where planners from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) appear to have lightened up on the county and are instead scheduling new growth in urban areas such as San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that the (housing) numbers we’ve been getting from the state through ABAG have dropped precipitously,” Dodd said.

In explaining the drop, Dodd credits supervisors Brad Wagenknecht, who sat as chairman of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and Diane Dillon, a member of ABAG’s methodology committee, for helping him lobby on behalf of Napa’s open spaces.

With Supervisor Mark Luce having been recently named president-elect of ABAG, the trend is likely to continue.

Last week, Luce noted that advocating for Napa to “maintain or reduce” its housing allocations would be a priority during his term as president, beginning on Jan. 1.

Situated at the near midpoint between San Francisco and Sacramento, local officials from Napa County have recently expanded their view beyond the Bay Area and have taken the helm of statewide organizations as well.

Dillon, as chairwoman of the 31-member Regional Council of Rural Counties (RCRC), has become a major player in Sacramento. She echoes the position’s value to the citizens of Napa County.

“There is, without a doubt, a benefit to Napa County when we hold these positions,” she said. “It gives us access to talk to people that we otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Serving as leader of RCRC affords Dillon an opportunity to advocate on behalf of Napa, as well as 30 other rural towns. As a result, sitting down with Dillon can be looked at as a meeting with constituents from more than half of California’s 58 counties.

“There are more than 35 million people in the state,” she said. “When you represent an organization, people are more likely to sit down and talk.”

As leader, Dillon said she is often called upon to select panelists to take part in policy-shaping discussions. The responsibility allows her to serve as a king maker when it comes to statewide programming.

By selecting local speakers, Dillon can ensure that Napa’s programs are showcased as best practices before members of the Legislature, potentially guiding the course of future legislation.

“We’re able to say ‘Hey look, here’s a better way to do it,’” she said. “By doing it like that, we support what (Napa’s) doing instead of having the state say, ‘we want you to do it like this.’”

Committee leaders are also often called on to attend statewide or national conferences, where they can continue to lobby on behalf of Napa’s interests.

For the past three years, Dillon has attended the National Association of County’s conference in Washington, D.C., where, in addition to her appointments on behalf of RCRC, she met with representatives of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation regarding the problems at Lake Berryessa.

The conference, she said, effectively serves as an added lobbying trip without the expense to local taxpayers.

While benefits abound, taking on the added responsibility of a new leadership positions requires officials to balance between regional and local priorities.

In some cases, the potential for conflict is small.

When working with RCRC, Dillon said that Napa’s priorities often align with their partner counties, meaning everyone is effectively hoping for the same outcome.

At the regional level, however, the demands of the larger Bay Area have been known to claim victims at the local level.

“There have been some people that have lost their positions because they weren’t doing the job back home,” Dodd said.

The problem, officials said, is one that has yet to surface here in Napa County.

“We all understand that we’re local elected officials first and foremost,” Dodd said. “You have to wear your regional hat. But make no mistake about it, we’re wearing our local hats and getting everything we can for Napa while we’re there.”

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