Looking at the agenda for the council meeting of September 22, I anticipated a short report. A recognition and a proclamation; consent calendars and just three items for discussion or action. It appeared everything was routine and non-controversial. And it was, until it wasn’t.
Mayor Joseph Callinan led off by recognizing the Information Technology Department for their services to the city during the pandemic. As the shelter in place orders went into effect, they shifted 80 employees from office to work from home during the first few weeks. They continued to provide service and assistance over the last six months. In large part, their efforts allowed the city to provide services to our community with employees working from home.
Next, he designated October 2020 as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. He said 1-in-4 families are impacted by domestic violence in our local community in one form or another. Madeleine Keegan O’Connell, Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA Sonoma County accepted the proclamation. She described what her organization offers. She said calls to their hotline at 707-546-1234 have risen during the shelter in place period. More information about their programs and resources can be found at: https://www.ywcasc.org.
Next on the agenda was a recommendation by city staff. It was designed to help businesses in Rohnert Park survive. Restaurants have been trying to stay open by shifting operations outside as allowed. But you can’t just pop up a tent, move tables and chairs to the grass, sidewalk, or parking lot. You need what is called a “Temporary Use Permit.” Fees are associated with that type of permit for outdoor business service expansions. Twenty-one have been issued so far; one is in the process of review. For struggling businesses, the cost of these fees can be a barrier. Fees for the permit, fire inspections and minor encroachment add up. $3,500 has already been received by the city.
The recommendation was in three parts. The first part was to allow city staff to waive fees for the permit and inspections if related to COVID-19. The second part was to refund the $3,500 previously paid. The third part was to establish an ad hoc committee to assist staff, as necessary. The first two parts were non-controversial. But the third part wasn’t. As proposed, the ad hoc committee was focused narrowly on the question of waivers of permitting and inspection fees.
The discussion seemed to have support of the council until Vice Mayor Jake Mackenzie spoke. He suggested that the council appoint Susan Adams and Gina Belforte to this committee. He recused himself from consideration and strongly suggested the mayor do the same because of their reelection campaigns. Callinan saw it differently. He wanted to modify the scope of the committee and said he strongly felt the mayor should be on that committee. He suggested Pam Stafford, who was absent, be the second member. That brought concerns from City Manager Darrin Jenkins that expanding the scope would bring unnecessary oversite from the council to city operations. He wanted staff professionals making those day-to-day decisions.
If this sounds confusing, the follow-up discussions brought some clarity. Everybody agreed health and safety of people is paramount. Yet businesses need to survive too. The guidelines for outside dining from the state and county are vague. Jenkins said what does “outside” mean. Winter’s coming. Will folks eat outside when it’s raining or cold. So how many flaps on the tents can businesses lower before blocking air flow and defeating the purpose of outside dining.
Is it one? That’s what city staff is currently enforcing? Or is it two? When will enclosed tents become the same as indoor dining? Who makes those decisions? After much back and forth, the first two parts were approved; so, no fees for permits and refunds will be made. The ad hoc committee was deferred for later consideration. Callinan is going to push the Public Health Officer for clarifications of what businesses can, or can not do, in the winter months. He’ll also reach out to state representatives asking for better guidance on outdoor dining. In the meantime, everyone’s hoping the county reaches state goals allowing limited indoor dining to resume.
The meeting ended with a discussion regarding Sunrise Park improvements and some conflicts occurring because of their use. Not all users are following the COVID-19 and park rules. The Public Safety Department has tried using education but is now looking at enforcement actions, as necessary. Fair warning!