THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa is keeping secret the names and application information about people seeking appointment to the City Council until after the application deadline passes.
The council’s goal for the policy it adopted Tuesday is to preserve the integrity of the process and to encourage as large and diverse a group of applicants as possible, Mayor Scott Bartley said.
“My goal would be to get as many people to apply as possible,” Bartley said.
The Press Democrat on Thursday filed a California Public Records Act request seeking the names of those who have picked up application packages, as well as copies of any completed applications filed today.
“There is a lot at stake given the balance of power on the City Council, and the selection process should be transparent,” Executive Editor Catherine Barnett said. “The public is paying attention to this appointment and should know as much as possible as soon as possible about who wants to serve.”
The application period opened last week and closes at the end of business Tuesday. Who may seek the appointment is a matter of intense speculation, given the influence the appointee could hold over the direction of the council.
But the city has opted for a process that is less open than the one governing local elections.
State election law requires the city clerk to keep track of and make public the names of people who have “pulled papers,” meaning they have picked up nomination forms and other documents from the city clerk.
Once those documents are returned and filed with the clerk, they are immediately made public, giving residents, the media and other candidates a clear sense of how the field of candidates is shaping up.
The sole exception to that disclosure requirement is the candidate statement that is to be printed on the sample ballot. That statement of up to 200 words remains confidential until the filing deadline passes, City Clerk Terri Griffin said.
But this is not an election. It is an appointment process that follows local rules established by the council, Bartley said.
He and other city officials said it would be better to keep the initial phase of the application process confidential for several reasons.
One reason was to create a level playing field among the candidates by ensuring that answers provided by candidates in the application questionnaire couldn’t be viewed by those who hadn’t filed yet, Bartley said.
A similar restriction apparently was in place in 2007, the last time the council grappled with filling a vacancy, he said.
But Bartley said he and other city officials thought it best to keep under wraps the names of those who had picked up an application packet and those who had returned one.
The thinking was that publicity about who was seeking the nomination might dissuade some potentially good applicants from applying, the mayor said.
“I would hate to see someone not submit an application because of the names they saw” of potentially better-known applicants, he said.
“We’re not just going to pick the most popular person. We’re going to pick the person who can do the best job,” Bartley said.
Griffin said as of Thursday, no one had returned an application packet. She declined to say who had picked up packets or even how many people had done so, citing the council policy.
Language added to the policy Tuesday states that “No information shall be disclosed prior to the close of the application deadline.”
Bartley said he understands the curiosity of some, including the media, in knowing as early as possible who is seeking the nomination. He said the issue wasn’t one he, Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom and City Manager Kathy Millison spent much time on when they discussed the potential policy changes with City Attorney Caroline Fowler prior to Tuesday’s council meeting, Bartley said.
Fowler said the city is within its rights to withhold information that might otherwise be public. She cited the exemption in public records laws for situations where public agencies determine the benefits of not disclosing the information outweigh the benefits of disclosing it.
She noted the city is not permanently refusing to make the information public. Rather it is an issue of when the documents are released, she said.
Bartley said his main goal was to get the nomination process moving quickly, something he’s pleased is occurring. He believes the council has set up a “fundamentally good process” that is fair and should yield some excellent candidates.
“I think we’ll need to circle back to see if it worked, if it didn’t work, and if we need to tweak it,” he said.