Santa Rosa’s open government task force, formed in response to criticism that city decision-making lacks transparency, opened its inquiry Thursday with a wide-ranging discussion about what open government means, where the city has fallen short and how the panel should explore areas for improvement.
“Open government is the core of effective democracy,” Vice-Mayor Robin Swinth said. “That’s why we’re here.”
Mayor Scott Bartley announced plans to form the 11-member panel two months after the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a sheriff’s deputy in the Moorland Avenue neighborhood as the teen carried a toy replica of an AK-47 assault rifle.
Lopez’s death sparked a tense and tumultuous period in city government. City officials urged council members to say nothing about the shooting, directives some council members questioned. Officials also shut down City Hall in response to a peaceful march and refused to fully disclose the reasons behind that decision.
The fallout included Bartley filing a hostile work environment complaint against Councilman Gary Wysocky, a probe that continues to this day. Wysocky has blasted the probe a “trumped-up investigation” and decried what he characterized as a “culture of secrecy” at City Hall.
Only passing reference was made to those and other incidents Thursday. Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said the task force was formed after “a series of incidents at the city.” These included communication following the Lopez shooting, criticism of the processes that resulted in Swinth’s appointment to the City Council and questions raised about closed-session briefings on labor negotiations, she said.
The incidents caused Carlstrom to approach Bartley to say “we need to get something in place to address this,” she said.
Task force members and members of the audience expressed a variety of views about what open government looks like and how it could be improved.
Several suggested the panel should make itself more open by holding its meetings at time when more people could attend, instead of from 10 a.m. to noon when most people are working.
Swinth and Carlstrom said alternative times were considered, but there are conflicts no matter when the meetings are held. Both said they have young children at home and evenings are their times for parenting.
They stressed that the meetings are taped, will be posted to the city website, and the panel’s recommendation to the City Council will be made in a public report later this year.
Only a few members of the public attended the meeting at the Finley Community Center.
Long-time Roseland activist Duane DeWitt said his experience has been that city staff tends to be “a bit dismissive of the public” and expressed concern that the task force was “more show than go.”
Kyra Janssen said the meeting was convenient for her only because she took a Pilates class in the center. “I really want to see (Santa Rosa) be a place where there’s a partnership between citizens, staff and the electeds,” Janssen said.
While transparency is a laudable goal, there are downsides, said task force member Tony Alvernaz, a retired city computer programmer and former president of its largest employee union. Sometimes the city goes to such lengths to solicit public input that it never gets anything done, he said.
“We’d actually be efficient if there were more backroom deals and there was less transparency,” Alvernaz said, a remark quickly disavowed by other members.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler said part of her job is to interpret open government laws and the numerous exemptions they contain.
“Sometimes what gets lost for people is there are other competing interests to being open and transparent,” Fowler said.
Examples include people’s privacy rights and the requirement that decision-making bodies only discuss issues that have been properly noticed to the public, a restriction she said can be frustrating for some who view it as “stifling the conversation,” she said.
But former Press Democrat Publisher Bruce Kyse said a city’s commitment to transparency rests not with staff’s interpretations of the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, and the state Public Records Act.
In his career at the paper, Kyse said he’d seen interpretations of such laws vary widely from favoring a strong commitment to openness and being used to shield information from public view.
“I think so much of it comes down to intent and interpretation,” he said.
Ultimately it’s up to political leaders to decide where on that openness spectrum they want the city to fall, he said.
Swinth thanked the group for the diversity of viewpoints. “There is always going to be a healthy tension and a place for debate on this. I think it’s great we’re having it,” she said.
The next meeting is scheduled for April 17 and will cover the Brown Act, the state’s open-meeting law.
©2014 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)