Public Citizen - Larry Barnett


Guiding the hand of government

The wealthy and powerful expect to get what they pay for, and most often they do, spending billions on lobbying and campaign donations to guide the hand of government. Though lip-service is paid to the free market, tax rules, land-use law and public policy all favor “big money,” and for these reasons the average citizen looks skeptically at government and politics, both national and local; evidence of a rigged game is too frequently all around them.

Opponents to the proposed Sonoma Hotel Limitation Measure regulating new hotels to a maximum of 25 rooms until the city’s annual occupancy rate exceeds 80% (now 65%) are already spending big money to frighten the public with hyperbolic talk of hotel “bans” and city budget disaster. There’s lots of money to be made in tourism, and big business advocates understand that “the process in place” favors development, not broad community interests. Invoking the status quo, they know on who’s side the law is buttered. Take the EIR process, for example.

Many people believe an EIR (environmental impact report) is a regulatory panacea that solves all problems. In actuality an EIR provides a road map for development. Through the process of an EIR, detrimental environmental situations identified in a development proposal are documented and methods of mitigating or overcoming the detrimental situations provided. While some detrimental situations may be costly to solve using the mitigation method required, a path to project approval is identified. Sometimes no mitigation is possible, but even this does not demand project denial if the problem is deemed not “significant” or “material” or the mitigation is deemed “infeasible.” An EIR does not regulate the cumulative impacts of multiple projects over time, appearance, scale, mass, or effects on quality-of-life.

Overall, land use law in California is tilted towards development. Development “rights” are well articulated and buttressed by legal precedents and statutes; community rights enjoy far less protection or legal justifications. For the community to assert its interest, it must generally rely on elected officials to broadly place “public health and welfare” above all other concerns. When that priority is compromised, evidenced when city council members publicly state that “government regulation of business is bad” or invoke using “the wisdom of the free market” as if banking, real estate and other scandals never happen, community members can take matters into their own hands, using the ballot initiative process to gain voter support, impose regulations and guide the hand of government. This is one way to insure that the anti-regulation bias of public officials and the lobbying power of big money is overcome.

Opponents of the Hotel Limitation Measure invoke the sanctity of “free market forces.” This would be amusing if the risks of over-development were not so high. Despite its market value of $12.9 billion, Marriott International, a huge multinational corporation and owner of The Lodge at Sonoma, nonetheless joined with Sonoma’s other large hotels to successfully ask the City Council to allow them to add two percent to bills guests pay to pay for promotion to fill empty rooms, diverting $450,000/yr. that could have gone directly into city coffers as TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax). Does Marriott really need financial help for promotion? This decision was made using the existing “process in place” — so much for the “free market.”

Is it really any wonder the citizens feel the public welfare is not being adequately protected?

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