LIGHTS UP Santa Tim Oxford and his elf, Jingles, help Cleo Wentzel, 6, throw the switch to turn on the tree lights at Merry Healdsburg! in the Plaza on Dec. 1. (Photography by Will Bucquoy)

On a cool and damp first December night, Santa Claus came to town.

But the steady soft rain that fell Friday in the Plaza did little to deter hundreds of spectators from enjoying the Christmas spirit, the perky carols of the Sugarplums and the variety of choice at the Farmers’ Market. Added bonus: Santa Tim showed up with his favorite elf, Jingles, and selected a local girl—6-year-old Cleo Wentzel, first in line to have her photo taken with the Big Guy—to throw the switch that turned on the tree lights.

A roar and a cheer (Merry Healdsburg!) went up from the crowd as the 47-foot white fir erupted in reds, golds, silver and white. “Oh what a night!” enthused Mayor Ariel Kelley. “Merry Healdsburg! was a hit again this year.”

This is only the third official year for Merry Healdsburg!, although the tree-lighting celebration goes back some time. As such, this event joins a select but growing list of official city events, most of them taking place in the historic Plaza at the heart of town.

These include regular events such as the 14-week Tuesdays in the Plaza and the much shorter (and quieter) Sundays music series, special events such as Healdsburg Crush and the Healdsburg Arts Festival, and holiday-oriented celebrations such as Fourth of July, Dia de Muertos and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and many others.

These all take city resources in staff time and road closures, sanitation and other park maintenance, police management and often road closures in the Plaza area. That creates plenty of work, if not headaches, for city staff.

Policy Presentation

Three days after the Merry Healdsburg! celebration, Recreation Supervisor Matt Milde came before the city council. He wasn’t there to bask in the glow, but to present a set of revisions to the city’s Special Events Policy.

Healdsburg’s Recreation Supervisor Matt Milde. (LinkedIn)

The Policy currently on the books dates from 2014. It “serves as a guide for obtaining permits and utilizing City parks, recreation facilities, or public right-of-way for special events,” according to Milde’s report.

But since the policy was developed almost 10 years ago, some of its guidelines have been shown to present “challenges for staff management and the need for striking an optimal balance between public use and special event use of these facilities.” In the intervening years of its use, too, related inconsistencies with the Municipal Code were also discovered.

A review process has been underway since 2019. As Milde noted, however, “Progress was delayed due to a flood, Kincade Fire, and COVID pandemic. Staff reconvened in late 2021, building on the 2019 progress.”

When the city council heard a report on progress of the effort in May of this year, it directed Milde to incorporate a Master Calendar of Events into the special-event permit review.

A month ago, on Nov. 8, the Parks and Recreation Committee reviewed the staff’s work and forwarded it on to the city council for action. The council’s discussion on Monday was to review this revised Policy for Special Events and City Partnerships, and the revisions to the Healdsburg Municipal Code it entailed.


The new Special Events Policy’s main innovation is to split the city events into three categories:

City of Healdsburg Events – Events produced and managed by the city, including the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Tuesdays in the Plaza, Merry Healdsburg! and more.

GREEN DAWN Marjie Grant and Garrett Perdigao ride a Healdsburg city vehicle down the parade route, escorted by David Hagele at left, during 2022 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. (Rick Tang Photography)

Partnership Events – Events that receive city support through fee waivers, in-kind equipment or services, and donated staff time. These Partnership events themselves have three levels, with the city’s partnership level depending on the degree of its involvement:

Sponsor: Limited to events with minimal equipment needs which require confirmation for the use of city property; Collaborator: The city provides some equipment, road closures, Recology waste servicing, and day-of staffing and facility support; and as Co-Organizer: With city staff taking part in planning meetings, having a voice in the event program and logistics, and providing a high degree of coordination throughout the event-planning process.

Finally there are External Events, those not managed or partnered by the city, but whose event organizers receive a permit from the city for the event to occur in public spaces.

Fees, obligations and expectations for these various levels of city-involved events are outlined in detail in the new Special Events Policy, along with applications, on the city website at

Master Calendar

The Master Calendar presented a lengthy list of special events in all of these categories, with attendance ranging from 5,000 for Fourth of July and Dia de Muertos, to under 500 for the St.  Patrick’s Parade, the Fitch Mountain Footrace and the Homecoming Parade.

Two new events came up for inclusion in this official Master Calendar. One was an AVFest Block Party, an opening for an annual film festival that until this year has been held in Cloverdale. But the closure of the Clover Theater in October forced nonprofit AVFilm to ask Healdsburg to pick up the event as a regular partnership.

Another newcomer to the calendar was a request from the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition to hold a Healdsburg Ciclovía, a temporary closure of certain streets in town to demonstrate non-motorized travel and shopping in the downtown area.

While a popular idea in concept, the proposal was not warmly received by the council members who felt more clarity and planning was needed on its scale and timing. Of special concern were the unanticipated impacts if it closed such popular and busy streets as Healdsburg Avenue from the Roundabout to the Plaza.

While the meeting ended with the city council’s adoption of the new Special Events Policy and revisions to the Municipal Code, the Ciclovía was held back, pending further evaluation from the Parks and Recreation Commission before it came back for the council’s approval.

Fees, obligations and expectations for city-involved events are outlined in detail in the new Special Events Policy, along with applications, on the city website at

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Christian Kallen has called Healdsburg home for over 30 years. A former travel writer and web producer, he has worked with Microsoft, Yahoo, MSNBC and other media companies, usually in an editorial capacity. He started reporting locally in 2012, moving from Patch to the Sonoma Index-Tribune to the Kenwood Press before joining the Healdsburg Tribune in 2022.


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