Background: Our representatives on city councils and the board of supervisors hire helpers, collectively called “staff,” to research topics they need to decide on. Our elected representatives routinely rely on staff’s recommendations regarding the issues that affect us.

Noteworthy: At a recent St. Helena City Council meeting, when dozens of citizens objected to a staff proposal, something remarkable happened. The council heard the citizens and actually voted as the people wished, counter to its staff’s recommendation.

It was remarkable because too often in this county, elected officials hide behind staff. Mr. Pedroza did the other night trying to justify his vote to allow more winery visitors up Soda Canyon Road.

But staff takes its cues from its boss, the board of supervisors. In this county---where planning commissioners and supervisors profess respect for our semi-rural character but incongruously allow ever more visitors and non-agricultural winery events; and where wineries which ignore their permits are forgiven then actually rewarded for their transgression---staff is not blind. It sees how friendly its bosses are to rampant development.

It’s not likely to recommend denial of a project if it can be in any way permitted. And staff, being “expert,” as Pedroza avers, is educated enough to articulate objectivity and defend those recommendations that it understands its bosses like.

Yet---what do the residents of Soda Canyon Road care about staffs’ recommendations? They didn’t elect staff. They elected a representative they thought would respond to their legitimate concerns. They know from daily experience the hazards of that road and the danger of tippling tourists. But as for their supposed representative---he heard staff, not them.

No wonder Napans appealing to their representatives about development feel cynically like Sisyphus. Over and over, same old thing: “less than significant impact.”

Maybe there’s a glimmer of hope. For years, Upvalley residents have been remarking the loss of the semi-rural character of the valley as tourism vies with agriculture for the county’s soul. The Soda Canyon Road travesty is just one example. But it’s been difficult for Down-valley residents, mostly in urban Napa or suburban American Canyon, to appreciate the extent of the county’s transformation from a semi-rural arcadia to a tourist mecca.

Now, at last---judging from robust attendance at the Napa Vision 2050 town forum, and from recent letters to the Register---the tourism plague is infecting Down-valley too. Big hotels are planned. Crowds jam the streets with music festivals. The model trains will vanish. Good-bye small- town Napa.

As for quiet, rural Upvalley Napa County: just a memory.

Unless -- unless we voters realize the decision is ours. We don’t have to elect people who’ll use staff to justify the degradation of Napa County. We can choose representatives who actually hear and respond to what residents want.

St. Helena City Council voted out incumbents. So can we.

Donald Williams


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