By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Santa Rosa City Council has resumed its long tradition of going out to dinner after council meetings, a sign not of improved city finances but of the mayor’s desire to foster a sense of congeniality.
But an open government advocate questioned whether the meals are appropriate given the public is excluded from the private gatherings.
Council members took advantage of a light agenda Tuesday to break bread at a downtown restaurant after the meeting, a meal that had two ground rules — no one discusses city business and everyone picks up their own checks.
Mayor Ernesto Olivares, who proposed the monthly meals as a salve for strained council relations, said it was a much needed chance for council members to socialize with one another.
“You have to work at relationships,” Olivares said.
For decades, the city council made a habit of taking meal breaks at local restaurants. Michelle’s in the West End, La Gare in Railroad Square or The Villa near Montgomery Village were common gathering spots. The city picked up the tab, and alcohol consumption was not uncommon.
The council often returned to City Hall to finish the second half of its agenda. In the 1970s and 1980s, Press Democrat reporters typically attended the meals as part of the covering the City Hall beat, though in recent years that was not the case.
The meals were a great way for council members to get to know one another on a personal level, said former Councilwoman Jane Bender.
“It was tradition to do it,” Bender said. “It helped us all work together as friends.”
The tradition faded in recent years. When the city’s finances started to falter several years ago, the council agreed it was bad form to have the city continue to pick up their meal checks, councilwoman Susan Gorin recalled.
The longer meetings under the new council and the fact that some council members are on a fixed income were factors, Bender said.
“When it became something that you paid for yourself, that became another expense,” Bender said, noting she’s on a retirement income.
Instead, the council arranged to have snacks, sandwiches or pizza available in the mayor’s conference room, and during long meetings — which often stretched past 9 p.m. — many would duck in for a snack during a brief dinner break.
Six members of the council attended the dinner Tuesday, one brought a spouse. Marsha Vas Dupre did not. City Attorney Caroline Fowler and City Manager Kathy Millison also attended, as did 16-year-old teen council member Ally Berk. They dined at Flavor, a white tablecloth bistro in Courthouse Square two blocks from City Hall. Everyone picked up their own checks, several attendees stressed.
Though a majority of the council was present, Fowler said the gathering did not constitute a public meeting under the state’s open meeting law, known as the Brown Act. She cited the section of the act that permits a majority of the council to gather for “a purely social or ceremonial occasion” as long as they don’t “discuss business of a specific nature that is within the subject matter jurisdiction” of the council.
But open-government advocate Terry Francke, co-founder of Californians Aware, says the social exemption was an amendment to the act meant to allow council members to attend ceremonial ribbon cuttings and community barbecues put on by others, not to hold private dinners for themselves.
“The public should not be asked to take them at their word that a social gathering with no one else present other than the officials is going to be strictly social and not an occasion for the discussion of business,” Francke said.
He said if an “impartial observer” such as a member of the media or representative of the League of Women Voters were invited to attend, the public might feel more comfortable with the arrangement.
Several attendees said that avoiding talking about city business wasn’t difficult at Tuesday’s meal. Councilman Gary Wysocky said he discussed architectural standards with Scott Bartley, an architect and new councilman. Olivares chatted with teen council member Berk, whom he called “a sharp kid.” Gorin, who is suffering from a cold, said she talked mostly with Millison and left early.
“It was good food and good company. It was a very cordial evening,” Millison said.