By PETE GOLIS
The lawyers were busy last week with the usual back and forth about whether the Santa Rosa City Council broke the law by failing to disclose a $327,000 embarrassment.
Even if the city’s legal defense involves more semantics than substance, City Hall likely doesn’t mind a controversy focused on what the state’s open meeting law does or doesn’t require. People tend to nod off when the conversation wanders into the arcane language of government. Plus, the blah-blah-blah serves to distract us from more fundamental questions, such as:
How did the City Council manage to fritter away $327,000? (Fritter is not the first word that came to mind, but you know what I mean.)
Let’s take away the obfuscation and review what happened here:
In 2008, the then-Santa Rosa City Council enacted a tax surcharge that was a lawsuit waiting to happen. It didn’t take a constitutional lawyer to figure out this assessment on future residents was floated on a wish and a prayer — as judges in two courts would later affirm. A year earlier, the council rejected the same proposal, noting it would create “two classes of citizens.” (This was the same time the cash-strapped city was talking about charging for paramedic calls for homeowners who didn’t volunteer to pay a monthly fee.)
Having lost in court — twice — the council met in private earlier this year and instructed its lawyer to complete the paperwork and pay court-ordered legal fees to the lawyers who successfully sued the city.
The council did not disclose the payment — for reasons all of us can understand. The council had screwed up; the outcome was embarrassing.
Along the way, City Attorney Caroline Fowler tried to persuade us the council didn’t make a decision when it made a decision.
Or, as Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
A Press Democrat editorial aptly described the city’s imaginative etymology as “the nonsense of the city’s games and word parsing.”
Yes, government will, from time to time, dance around its responsibilities to make full disclosure. Sometimes, the obligations prescribed by law are judged to be inconvenient. It’s such a bother to keep the public informed.
Other times, the obligation requires disclosures that government would rather keep to itself. To choose an example at random: How about the loss of $327,000?
It remains that government is not a disinterested party when it comes to interpreting its responsibilities under the law — and its responsibilities to the governed. This is true in Washington, it is true in Sacramento, and it is true in Santa Rosa, California.
This episode also reminds us that elected officials try hard to be invisible when embarrassments come along. Fowler did all the talking, as if she were the only person in the room when the city decided it was saddled with a lost cause.
But Fowler didn’t make these decisions; the City Council did; and the City Council should be accountable for them.
In case you forgot their names, here are the current members of the Santa Rosa City Council: Mayor Scott Bartley, Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom, Julie Combs, Ernesto Olivares, Jake Ours, Robin Swinth and Gary Wysocky. (Politicians love to get their names in the paper.)
For folks who value good government, it’s important to note that Santa Rosans only know about this waste of public funds because this hometown newspaper and Staff Writer Kevin McCallum were doing their jobs.
The problem is, there are fewer Kevin McCallums around to keep an eye on government for us.
In its annual survey of the news media, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported the resources available to newspaper and TV newsrooms have declined by 30 percent since 2000.
By all accounts, the Capitol press corps in Sacramento is less than half as large as it was a decade ago. That means fewer than three dozen reporters to cover a government that employes 193,000 people and spends $98 billion a year on behalf of 38 million Californians.
It’s an old story by now. A revolution in technology, in combination with an economic recession, has news organizations scrambling to redesign their business models.
Having worked 40-some years as a news guy, I can’t pretend to be an innocent bystander. But if you value this kind of watchdog journalism, you need to find ways to support it.
Whether it’s a White House with a penchant for secrecy, a state Legislature that seems less accountable with each passing year, or a city government that forgets to mention a misadventure that costs taxpayers $327,000, stuff happens.
For all the good intentions people bring to public service, government agencies will find ways to rationalize their desire for secrecy.
Meanwhile, we know what will happen if government comes to believe it can act without fear of being held accountable. We will be stuck with a government that is less competent and a society that is less democratic.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at email@example.com.