Petaluma fairground talks to start behind closed doors
After years of closed-door discussions about the fate of the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, officials on both sides of upcoming lease negotiations say they’re ready to bring the conversation out into the open and involve the public at an unprecedented level.
It took three somewhat contentious votes to get there, but the Petaluma City Council this week selected a temporary subcommittee that will represent the city in the first wave of meetings with fairgrounds board next month.
Council members Mike Healy, Kevin McDonnell and Dave King, who was absent at Monday’s meeting at City Hall, were appointed for the assignment, and will help craft the framework for a process that officials believe could benefit from a fresh approach.
“We’re trying to hit the reset button and do a preliminary step to a preliminary step (by going this route),” said City Manager Peggy Flynn.
The city owns the coveted 64-acre property in the heart of Petaluma and leases it to the 4th District Agricultural Association, a state agency that operates the Sonoma-Marin Fair and is overseen by a board of directors that is appointed by the governor.
The current lease, which was adopted in 1973 and later extended an additional 25 years, provides the city $1 annually, and expires in 2023.
The council subcommittee is expected to convene with a similar group representing the Fair Board at a day-and-a-half closed-door workshop in October that will be mediated by an impartial consultant, said Petaluma Economic Development Manager Ingrid Alverde.
The city has enlisted Barry Long, managing principal for Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates, to facilitate the workshop, Alverde said. UDA arbitrated the redesign process for Paradise, the Butte County town that suffered the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history last year.
The price for UDA’s services is $12,000, but Petaluma officials haven’t committed to the agency long-term, and Alverde said they’re not sure if a mediator will be needed for the entire length of negotiations.
In addition to hammering out the rules of engagement, the “guiding principles” and “base assumptions,” according to a city staff report, both sides will discuss an outreach plan designed to engage the community and identify the broader priorities and concerns for the property.
Although, for Healy, that’s not enough. One of the longest-tenured council members, he described the process over the last four years as having “a total lack of transparency,” and called for this preliminary workshop to be held in a public setting to signal a new, clear-cut approach to the community.
“Everybody knows what’s going on except the public,” said Healy. “I think that needs to stop and it needs to stop now.”
The council was split on how much public involvement was necessary at such an early step.
Other council members favored keeping this process in place with the workshop held away from the public eye — at least at this stage.
“For this very limited period of time in meeting with the Fair Board, it is really just to figure out how that community process is going to move forward,” said Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer. “We can certainly come back and report on it, and be transparent.”
For now, the initial workshop will remain private, Alverde said. The early objective is to find common ground on both sides so they can bring a united front to the public outreach phase, she said.