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GOLIS: Santa Rosa council had a bad, bad week

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:

Pete Golis.

Pete Golis.

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 golispd@gmail.com.





10 Responses to “GOLIS: Santa Rosa council had a bad, bad week”

  1. Follower says:

    MY GOD! What is it going to take for voters to realize that we are paying WAY MORE taxes than it takes to run the Government?

    How many times do we have to hear Government Officials, top to bottom say “I didn’t know” before voters understand that our Government has grown far too large to manage?

    Over and over again we hear them say “we need more money for this project, that program”.
    So the voters say “ok, here’s some more” only to find years past the deadline, MILLIONS over budget that the new bolts will snap in an earthquake!

    The “high speed rail” will not only be SLOW but will cost FAR MORE than predicted, take far longer to complete and won’t go where they said it would when they sold it to us.

    The parks don’t REALLY need to be closed because they LIED about their budget!
    …and on & on.

    When is enough “ENOUGH”?

  2. Snarky says:

    Kathy Robler said, “they should pay a political price for their misadventure..”

    First, Kathy, they should pay with a criminal prosecution and a criminal conviction. :) Secretly attempting to violate the Brown Act was a conspiracy to engage in a crime. They just got caught.

    Secondly, Kathy, it wasn’t a “misadventure.” Thats such an understatement that its amusing. They engaged in criminal conduct.

    When someone robs a bank,,, nobody calls that a “misadventure.”

    When someone burglarizes a building, nobody calls that a “misadventure.”

    And when criminal politicians and their support staff agree to and then act in unison with one mind… to keep the public from knowing what they did with nearly $400,000 … only the foolish call that a “misadventure.”

    Its called corruption.

    And theres only one way to deal with corruption. Prison.

  3. Grapevines says:

    The part that gets me is that if it was you or I that caused the city to have to fork over $327,000, we’d be defending ourselves in court. Yet what happens here?

    You can be assured that nobody responsible in the city will be losing any sleep over this.

    Where’s the justification for that??

  4. RICHARD says:

    ‘… Santa Rosans only know about this waste of public funds because this hometown newspaper and Staff Writer Kevin McCallum were doing their jobs.”

    Hear hear, Press Democrat and Mr McCallum did a great job on this issue.

  5. Andy says:

    I’ll be so glad to get out of Socialist County. I have one more property to sell and I’ll be moving back to America. I can’t wait.

  6. Andrew M says:

    So where’s the beef? I hear a lot of huffing and puffing, but no information, at least about the money you’re talking about. I know the previous councils have been into approving giant projects downtown that aren’t going to happen. Are you on that story, and where the money went that you’ve bleated about so much.

  7. Erin Carlstrom Is An Officer of the Court says:

    Remember folks Erin Carlstrom is a member of the Council but is also an attorney and an officer of the court. She shouldn’t be participating in such a sleazy low down scheme. THis from a chick who plans to run for higher office???? Not a good start.

  8. Steveguy says:

    Gotta love the quote at the end ” 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.”
    ________________________

    Ummm,hey PD, you have been rubber stamping everything that comes out of these greed mongers. When is the PD going to act like the REAL 4th estate ? Ever ? Not with the new owners, as they are all connected to to the status quo of connections and the slurping up from our County’s trough of favors.

    I do appreciate the small effort, but where were you for the SMART corruption, etc, etc ? Where, besides being a giddy cheerleader ? Are ‘journalists that gullible ? Seems so to me.

  9. Kathy Robler says:

    Yes, the Santa Rosa City Council screwed up big time and they should pay a political price for their misadventures. But what about the City Attorney’s office? They wrote the ordinance, provided the explanation of why they believed it to be lawful and used awful judgment. The taxpayers pay the penalty.

    Heads should roll for this misadventure.

  10. Sonoma Gone Crazy says:

    In your closing paragraph:

    “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.”

    You did leave one very noticeable group out. One that violates the Brown Act like it never existed and gets away with it. That is our own County Government. You know Sonoma County, the County rumored to be the most corrupt County in the State of California, but that is according to other politicians around the State.