By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
In an attempt the quell a controversy over the legal advice given to Santa Rosa City Council members in the wake of the Andy Lopez shooting, the city took the unusual step Wednesday of releasing previously confidential emails on the subject.
The day after the council voted to waive the attorney-client privilege covering the emails, City Attorney Caroline Fowler released the documents, including guidance she gave to the entire council and an email exchange she had with Councilwoman Julie Combs, who has characterized the advice as a “gag order.”
The basics of what is outlined in the emails are already known. Combs asked for advice about what she could and could not say about the shooting, and she and fellow council members were told they could say nothing about the incident and to refer all questions to the police department.
But the documents also reveal additional details, some of which may help explain why city officials were so concerned with Combs’ plans to go on live radio Oct. 25 to discuss the case.
Lopez, 13, was shot and killed Oct. 22 by a sheriff’s deputy who mistook his plastic BB gun for an AK-47 assault rifle, which it was designed to closely resemble.
In the emails, Combs questions whether the Santa Rosa Police Department ought to even be investigating the shooting.
“Is anyone there thinking about the appearance of our dept investigating the sheriff’s dept at the same time as they are investigating us,” Combs wrote. “Might be good to pass this one over to Napa or somewhere else?”
Fowler responded that doing so would be contrary to the long-established protocol that calls for “critical incidents” such as officer-involved shootings to be investigated by other Sonoma County law enforcement agencies. She added that the findings would be reviewed by the District Attorney and forwarded to the Sonoma County Grand Jury.
Combs’ query began with a 10:05 a.m. email on Oct. 25 to City Manager Kathy Millison explaining that she had been invited to go on KSRO that afternoon and wanted to speak to someone “about the Lopez case to ensure that I am both careful and accurate” and that she wanted “to be sure of the facts to assist in calming the rumor mill.”
Fowler explained Wednesday that she immediately called Combs, couldn’t get in touch with her, and left her voicemail messages. She followed up with a email to the entire council telling them that “It is critical that you not comment on the sheriff incident that is being investigated by the SRPD. This is an ongoing investigation and the police department and sheriff department are the appropriate source of any information to the public.”
Combs then suggested that someone at City Hall draft a statement that council members could read “instead of just sending the muzzle warning.”
In later emails, Combs said it is “hard to lead without being able to speak,” a point she has made publicly several times since. By early afternoon, she received some “talking points” for her appearance on the show, but she was disappointed that they were little more than police department contact information, she said.
“I was seeking what our unified message should be going forward, and to this day we have not even had a discussion about that,” Combs said Wednesday.
Fowler said the emails demonstrate that her advice was appropriate and aimed at protecting the city and the integrity of the police investigation.
“The point was the city is performing an independent investigation of this shooting, and it’s not appropriate for them to give the appearance that they were interfering with or prejudging the investigation in any way,” Fowler said.
She said she never told council members not express their feelings about the shooting.
“If she constructed that to mean that she couldn’t express her feelings about this tragic event, then I’m sorry about that,” Fowler said. “But had she picked up the phone and called me it could have been easily straightened out.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.