The 2017 wildfires underscored the need for new policies, at the local and state level, to protect the public. But who ensures those policies comply with the law and, when necessary, advocates for them in courtrooms and regulatory hearings?
Meet the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office. The office, which provides legal advice and representation to the Board of Supervisors and county departments and agencies, played a critical role in shaping the county’s response to the 2017 fires while helping local and state officials craft new measures to fortify the region against future disasters.
The Sonoma County Counsel’s Office assisted the county Department of Emergency Management develop an Emergency Operations Plan, a comprehensive blueprint that guides disaster preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. The plan provides the framework for a coordinated effort by local, state and federal agencies to protect life, property and the environment during disasters.
The County Counsel’s Office also helped the Department of Emergency Management draft more than a half-dozen annexes, or supplemental plans, to address specific aspects of disaster response, including mass care and shelter, emergency alerts, power shutoffs, extreme heat events, flooding, debris flow in burn scars and the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the state level, the office coordinated the county’s participation in a local government coalition to represent the interests of the community in several hearings by the California Public Utilities Commission, urging regulators to impose new rules on PG&E and other electric utilities. The county’s lawyers advocated for actions that would reduce the risks of wildfires, improve emergency communications, protect the health and safety of vulnerable populations, lower carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, and lessen the impacts of power shutoffs.
The county’s advocacy led to the adoption of many recommendations by the CPUC. Most notably, it has helped to establish critical communication and information-sharing mandates before, during and after disasters. It has also resulted in actions to mitigate wildfire damage, harden infrastructure, restore electrical service after an emergency and reduce the impacts of public safety power shutoffs.
At the local level, the office worked with a team of wildfire experts and outside legal counsel to understand the damages suffered after the 2017 North Bay fires and the 2019 Kincade fire. It recovered critical funding from PG&E to aid the county in the continued recovery from the fires and support projects that protect our community from future disasters.
County Counsel also helped draft the Recovery & Resiliency Framework, which serves as a vision for how the county will emerge more resilient from the 2017 wildfires. It focuses on five key strategic areas: community preparedness and infrastructure, housing, the economy, safety net services and natural resources.
The framework was prepared by the county’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency in collaboration with other county departments, local jurisdictions, nonprofits and other community stakeholders. It is the culmination of input during an extensive community engagement period that included seven countywide community meetings, an online survey, and feedback meetings with more than 80 community organizations and local partners.
“The Sonoma County Counsel’s Office is committed to providing the highest quality legal representation and advice, in a timely and responsive manner, to help the county and the Board of Supervisors promote the public interest, achieve programmatic and strategic goals and protect our financial resources,” said County Counsel Robert Pittman, who oversees the office of approximately 30 attorneys and 10 support staff.