By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Erin Carlstrom voted on several key issues during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, including a new contract for firefighters and a new operating agreement for the Bennett Valley Golf Course.
But instead of weighing in from City Hall with her colleagues, the 30-year-old attorney and new mother did so from the comfort of her home in the city’s historic Ridgway District, barely a mile from City Hall.
The unusual arrangement allowed Carlstrom to participate in City Council votes while she remains on leave following the birth Oct. 5 of her son, Adlai Jefferson Carlstrom-Caston.
On Tuesday evening she cast her first vote, in favor of the firefighters contract, by speaker phone while seated on a dining room chair with Adlai curled up and sleeping in a sling on her lap.
“I’m thrilled this is an accommodation that can be made,” Carlstrom said before the meeting. “I think it’s actually a really great way for me to continue to represent the constituents I was elected to represent while still being able to care for my son.”
For his part, Adlai made only an occasional peep while sleeping through an hour-long stretch of meeting — living up to his mother’s description of him as “a fairly relaxed baby.”
The state’s open-meeting law, known as the Brown Act, allows government boards and councils to conduct business by audio or video teleconferencing under certain conditions.
It isn’t a common practice, but city council members have participated in meetings remotely in the past, usually when they are out of town on vacation or for some other obligation, City Attorney Caroline Fowler said.
Council members can participate if the place they are calling from is accessible to the general public. That means they can’t be driving in a car or on a cruise ship, but could, theoretically, call in from a hotel room or private home, Fowler said.
The agenda for the meeting must note that a council member will be participating by teleconference. It also must state the exact location from which the council member will be participating.
In addition, a notice must be posted at the location at least 72 hours before the meeting. Carlstrom posted the notice in her front window on Saturday, she said.
In order to ensure transparency, state law requires that the general public be allowed to attend the meeting from all the locations of participating elected officials. That means that when Carlstrom opted to call in from her dining room, the general public was allowed to be there with her.
Prior to the meeting getting underway, Carlstrom said she didn’t have any problem with that provision. “The public’s business deserves to be done in public,” she said.
As it turned out, the only members of the public to visit her home during Tuesday’s meeting were a Press Democrat reporter and photographer.
To take part, Carlstrom sat barefoot at her raised dining room table, which contained a powered-up speaker phone, laptop computer, iPad and a powered-down baby monitor. At her feet lay her purple rhinestone faux fur slippers and a Roomba automatic vacuum cleaner.
In the adjacent living room, husband Nick Caston sat on a sofa and typed on his laptop. On a nearby piano sat five bouquets, including one from city staff, that were sent to celebrate Adlai’s birth. And on the floor beneath was a mamaRoo infant seat, a replacement for the baby swings of yesteryear, which Caston noted comes with five unique motions to mimic the bounce and sway of mom and dad.
Carlstrom watched the council members on a live online video feed, which was delayed about seven seconds from the audio coming to her by phone. When she made comments or audibly cast her vote, she pushed a button on the speaker phone.
In the council chambers, the audio connection was often choppy, forcing fellow council members and staff to ask Carlstrom to repeat herself.
At one point as Carlstrom spoke, the cries of Adlai as he fussed came through clearly over the line.
“It sounds like you have a member of the public there demanding your attention,” Mayor Scott Bartley said.
Should any other members of the public decide to observe Carlstrom when she teleconferences on meeting nights, the at-home visits might raise some questions: When and how could visitors speak to the rest of the council? Does the home comply with provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act? What if guests become disruptive? Could they use the bathroom? What if Carlstrom needs to breastfeed during the meeting? And perhaps the biggest question of all, do visitors get to hold the baby?
Prior to the meeting, Carlstrom said she wasn’t sure how all such logistics would work out.
Just last week, Carlstrom made an announcement confirming she was running for the state Senate seat being vacated by Noreen Evans. At the time, a campaign spokeswoman said the timing of the announcement was to give her “some quiet time with her baby.”
She plans to return to her full council duties Nov. 5. To make that happen, she said, Adlai could show up “in person” with her in the council chambers.