By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. July 06, 2015

Who is the face of our City government?

Often it’s the Mayor. But sometimes it’s the city manager or chief of police — or even another City department head, depending upon the context.

But more often than not, it’s someone you may not have realized is there, unless you had reason to call City Hall. If you did, you probably spoke with Sonia Ramos, City Council Office Administrator.

Sonia is a bright, positive, thoughtful and heartfelt person, whose infectious laugh turns problems into possibilities, and insecurities into hope. That’s part of what has made her so perfect in that unique position, as the first person the public talks to when they reach out to their City government.

Sonia has been responding to public calls and visits since 1995, and is stepping down on July 9. Having served on the Council during her tenure, I can testify how good she made us all look – an opinion I know my colleagues past and present share.

“A large number of calls come from residents reaching out to their elected officials, with questions and concerns that impact Santa Monica,” says Sonia. “As Council Office Administrator, I listen attentively to the callers’ concern and relay the message to the members of the City Council via email, and many times include the City Manager where appropriate.”

When people call for their elected officials, not only do they want service – but they want to be heard. That’s one place Sonia excelled.

Many times in the Council office, calls would come in, and with some people you could tell they had very strong feelings, and these were difficult calls. Sonia would take the time for the person to feel they were being heard, and work with them to get there.

But what was more remarkable, was not only that she could do this, but that she emerged fresh and positive from each interaction — de nuevo — and could return and be present in the moment. That non-attachment — punctuated by her uplifting sense of humor — was key in relating to so many community members.

Sonia’s job also included day to day administrative support to the seven Councilmembers – all with our different needs and personalities. In reality, Sonia was part administrator and part psychologist – relating to us all as people, but also as politicians, and understanding the political context in which we live. Sonia did this in a fair, impartial and apolitical manner, while maintaining supportive human relationships with each of us at the same time. (She even knew what each of us liked to eat and drink – two of us were vegetarians when I was on the Council, when it was time to order food for our dinner before Council meetings.)

Of course, Sonia also dealt with other city departments, often forwarding residents’ concerns their way. On June 23 of this year, the city manager’s office sponsored a Sonia Ramos Farewell Day at City Hall, where fellow city employees were welcome to come by the Council office during the day and say goodbye. It was a virtual wedding reception line of city employees from department heads to the rank-and-file, all coming to express their feelings.

Sonia’s humanity extended in many unique and personal ways, often not well-known.

Many of you know of Joy Fullmer, a local institution from speaking at almost every City Council meeting starting in the late 1980s, until she’s slowed down a bit in recent years. A truly sympathetic and unique human being, the LA Times once playfully described her thus: “A council gadfly for years, Fullmer spends hours at City Hall each week poring over staff reports and taking copious notes to help prepare for her remarks — which often stray from the subject at hand.”

What most of you probably don’t know, is that for years, Joy Fullmer would stop by the Council office almost daily to visit Sonia. Even as Joy has slowed down, she’s continued to visit the Council office, and Sonia has continued to give her a home and respite each day.

I believe Sonia has extended Joy’s life with this blessing.

“I will miss Joy’s daily city hall visit,” says Sonia about her daily companion. “I will miss her yearly pocket calendar gift (never failed). I will cherish her sincere condolence upon the death of my mother. I pray that my City family continues caring for Joy.”

Changing responsibilities

The City Council Office Administrator job — and the Council office itself have evolved since Sonia began in 1995.

At that time, the door to her office was a ‘Dutch’ or ‘double-hung’ door, divided horizontally so that the bottom half may remain shut with the top half open. Sonia shared the office with Bridget Stermer, who worked half time. But in 2000 the part time position was eliminated, Sonia’s Dutch door was replaced by a full non-see through door, and walk-ins were redirected to the City Managers office.

This meant all of the Council administrative support was one person’s responsibility, which Sonia says has been “challenging.” “Further challenges have have come from the change in technology since 1995, when few people used email,” adds Sonia. “Today because of email communications, correspondence to the Council has more than doubled, multiplied by seven Councilmembers, and with it the response time.”

Did we make the right decision cutting back from one and a half people in the Council office to one, combined with the realignment of walk-in traffic to the City Managers office? “I would encourage management to reconsider allocating funds for part-time staff to the Council office, as in bygone years,” observes Sonia. Then with her typical humor she adds “Perhaps then my successor will stay longer.”

Santa Monica’s City Council/City Manager form of government depends upon people like Sonia. We have part-time Councilmembers, who often have full-time or part-time employment separate from the Council. They simply can not be available all the time. Hence the critical importance of the Council office.

Farewells, new beginnings

Watching the steady stream of friends and admirers entering the Council office on Sonia’s Farewell Day, discussion drifted to a cross country drive Sonia was planning to see family. After several of us suggested interesting places to stop along the way, it became apparent to Sonia and the rest of us, that It had never occurred to her that she could stop along the way unplanned, and see what she wanted, without being on a schedule. You could see this happy realization spread across her face.

After being responsible to so many of us for so long, Sonia now gets to follow her own new paths.

Born in Cuba, Sonia fled to the United States as a young girl in the early 1960s as part of Operation Pedro Pan, leaving her parents behind until they were able to join her several years later. She ‘made it’ in this country, and now is ready to take the next step. What principles have guided her? There were on the invitation to her Farewell Day:

• Live Simply
• Dream Big
• Be Grateful
• Give Love
• Laugh Lots

Important words to remember. A human being never to forget.

Thank you Sonia for sharing twenty years of your life with our community. Gracias Sonia Corazón.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.

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