By Dayna Ghirardelli, Executive Director
For some time, I’ve been completely frustrated with the fact that I cannot vote in the Petaluma city council election though I am a resident of Petaluma, as indicated by my zip code. Petaluma is my hometown. It is where my kids went to school. It is where I regularly shop and therefore contribute to its economy. It is home. Yet, I don’t get to participate in electing the very folks who shape my town. The very folks who choose how growth and expansion take place in my town. The very folks who determine that a road diet through downtown Petaluma is what’s best to encourage walking and biking, but not very accommodating for those who don’t live within a reasonable distance. The very folks who get to determine what happens to our beloved fairgrounds that have been at the center of the city for generations.
To participate in any city election, one must live within the city limits. Living outside of the city limits, my voice has been minimalized and does not bear the weight of those living within. It is hard to watch my town morph into something nearly unrecognizable knowing I have no real influence. When I’ve shared this frustration with residents who live in town, they exclaim that it would not be fair for anyone outside of the city limits to vote because it is the city council that sets their water, sewer, and garbage rates. While I didn’t like the fact that I have no say in what happens within my hometown, I understood and appreciated what they were saying…… until now.
A resident within the city limits of Petaluma is also a Sonoma County resident, participating in the county elections, thereby having an influence on who their district representative is. For the last 12 years, Petaluma and all of District 2 have been positively represented by Supervisor David Rabbitt. The 2nd Supervisorial District includes the cities of Petaluma and Cotati and a portion of Rohnert Park, as well as the unincorporated communities of Penngrove, Two Rock, Bloomfield, and a portion of the unincorporated community south of Sebastopol. Therefore, Supervisor Rabbitt is the only source of local representation for me and my family, as well as the ranchers, farmers, and residents who do not live within city limits. The county supervisors set policies that shape our county. The county supervisors make decisions on policies through ordinances that directly affect rural residents, such as the Well Ordinance, the Local Coastal Plan, the On-site Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS, aka septic), and the list goes on. These ordinances set by county supervisors are no different from the fees and rates that are set by city councils for water, sewer, garbage, etc. Do you get where I’m going with this?
In my opinion, we should be able to participate in City Council elections based on our zip code. By and large, we rely on and contribute to the economy of our resident city and, therefore, should have the ability to participate in the elections to influence representation. I recognize that there are many unincorporated communities that have their own zip code but do not operate under their own City ordinance or charter. These areas are typically connected to a given city through secondary school designations. For example, most of Penngrove is in the Petaluma City School District for high school attendance; therefore, they would be part of the Petaluma City elections. I’m not talking about gerrymandering, of course, but utilizing what is already in place to ensure proper influence and representation.
My frustration continues to be reinforced through many of the endeavors I am tasked with as the executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, as a board member of the 4th District Agricultural Association (aka Sonoma-Marin Fair), as a resident of Petaluma, and member of my community. Considering the upcoming review and update of Sonoma County’s General Plan, we will be leaning on our county supervisors to reinforce our quality of life in Sonoma County. As rural county and unincorporated community residents, the reality is that we are the ones tasked with the heavy lifting to see most of the ordinances through by adhering to restrictions of use on our own properties to appeal to the beauty of the county- for all its residents. Is it that much to ask that those of us who live outside of the city limits have a say in who reinforces the quality of life of our town? It shouldn’t be.