By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Two weeks after the shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez convulsed the city with grief and confusion, Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs plans to publicly ask for clarification Tuesday about what she and her colleagues can and cannot say about the tragedy.
The first-term councilwoman says she has felt “muzzled” by the “directives” to say nothing about the Oct. 22 incident just outside city limits, where a sheriff’s deputy shot Lopez as the boy walked through a southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood carrying an airsoft BB gun that closely resembled an AK-47 assault rifle.
Both the city manager and city attorney sent messages to council members in the days after the shooting advising them to say nothing about the shooting to avoid jeopardizing an investigation by the Santa Rosa Police Department.
Combs went forward with newspaper and radio interviews anyway, speaking generally about the community’s response to the shooting but not discussing details of the case. She has no information about the investigation beyond what had been reported in the media, and therefore can’t understand how she could jeopardize any investigation.
“When I was elected to City Council, I never expected that I would lose my right to free speech during times of crisis or tragedy,” Combs said.
She now wants what she said amounts to a “gag order” over the council lifted.
“The current direction to me and to other council members is wrong and should be immediately rescinded,” Combs said.
But Mayor Scott Bartley said he believes the advice given to council members was appropriate and was meant to prevent them from making inappropriate statements that might harm the investigation.
Council members are free to discuss their feelings about the incident and the community’s reaction to it, and have done so, Bartley said.
“I don’t understand how she feels constrained because she can always speak about how she feels as an individual,” Bartley said.
He noted, however, that “the Mayor is the person who speaks for the city,” as outlined in the City Charter.
Tuesday’s meeting is the first chance since the shooting for some council members to say something publicly about it at a council meeting. Bartley thinks some will.
“I’m sure people will take the opportunity to say something. We have to acknowledge it,” Bartley said.
He said he plans to stress the positive stories overlooked by the media since the tragedy, such as how professionally both the police and community members have acted to keep the protests peaceful.
Combs said city officials have been unequivocal that she can say nothing about the shooting. She pointed to messages from City Attorney Caroline Fowler telling her that she “cannot go on the radio and discuss this case” and “cannot discuss that case under any circumstances.”
“It is extremely inappropriate for you to get involved in the middle of this,” Fowler told Combs in a voicemail message.
Fowler stressed that her advice was related to the ongoing investigation.
“I have not advised council members that they cannot discuss their feelings or sympathy for the tragedy that the community is dealing with,” she said.
Combs said she also wants an explanation from City Manager Kathy Millison about why she was told that her remarks put city employees’ safety at risk.
Millison closed City Hall at noon last Tuesday and sent city workers home just minutes before a protest march started two blocks to the north. The City Council meeting scheduled for that afternoon was also canceled.
The decision was a last-minute switch from an earlier plan to close City Hall offices to the public at noon but allow the City Council chambers to remain open and proceed with the public portion of the council meeting.
In explaining the switch, Millison cited “hostile postings about the city on social media that raised concerns.”
Combs said Millison called her Tuesday morning, the day a story came out in The Press Democrat reporting the advice not to discuss the shooting, and gave her a “dressing down” about her comments in the media.
Combs was quoted in the story questioning the directive to remain silent as “overly broad.” She also expressed support for the Lopez family, the community’s right to grieve and protest safely, and acknowledged a “feeling of broken trust.”
Combs said Millison seemed troubled by comments she made on the radio supportive of civilian review panels. Combs said she was merely referencing her long-standing belief in the value of citizen oversight panels for law enforcement, consistent with recommendations made in 2000 by the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission after a spate of officer-involved shootings
Millison told Combs that her remarks had “endangered city staff, police, fire and anyone wearing a badge,” Combs recalled.
Millison declined last week to disclose the posts, saying the information “may be part of a follow-up investigation.” She did not return calls for comment Monday.
Combs said she will ask her council colleagues to put on the agenda a public discussion about what they can and cannot say. But because the issue is not on Tuesday’s agenda, the council will not be able to have a substantive discussion about it, Bartley said.
That can only happen at future publicly-noticed meeting that he would have to schedule for later in the year and after a staff report is prepared, if necessary, he said.