Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley has filed a complaint against Councilman Gary Wysocky, accusing him of creating a hostile work environment at City Hall following an argument he had with City Attorney Caroline Fowler in the tense days following the Andy Lopez shooting.
Bartley’s complaint triggered a confidential personnel investigation being conducted by an outside legal firm, a probe that has generated much speculation at City Hall following its revelation at a City Council meeting two weeks ago.
At that meeting, Fowler hinted at the investigation when responding to Wysocky’s demand that an email exchange between the two be made public. Fowler declined, saying she was under instructions from outside legal counsel not to release the emails.
Since that time, The Press Democrat has spoken to several sources with knowledge of the series of events that resulted in the investigation.
Neither Bartley nor Fowler would discuss the investigation or what lead to it. Wysocky said he and his attorney have pressed for details of the allegations against him so he can defend himself but to date have received none.
“This is a Kafkaesque investigation at taxpayers’ expense where I don’t have specifics,” Wysocky said.
Interviews with people familiar with the incident or the investigation reveal that Wysocky and Fowler had a heated exchange around noon Oct. 29 in a conference room in the city manager’s office.
Tensions were high at City Hall that morning. A major march protesting the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez at the hands of a sheriff’s deputy was scheduled to begin downtown at noon. In response, city officials on Monday evening decided that on Tuesday they would lock the doors of City Hall offices to the public at noon but allow the City Council meeting to go forward at 4 p.m.
On Tuesday morning, The Press Democrat published a story reporting that Fowler and City Manager Kathy Millison had instructed the council to say nothing about the shooting, citing the need to preserve the integrity of the shooting investigation being performed by the Santa Rosa Police Department.
The story, which ran under the headline “SR council stays mum on shooting,” included emails from Fowler and Millison to the council and quoted Councilwoman Julie Combs questioning that guidance.
Millison, who had been out of the office Monday, held a meeting Tuesday morning with senior staff, including police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, where they reviewed “hostile postings about the city on social media that raised concerns.” Millison has declined to make those posting public.
Following that meeting, she and Bartley changed the gameplan and decided to instead close City Hall at noon, send workers home and cancel the City Council meeting.
Fowler sent an email to the council shortly before noon telling them that “in light of reports and the irresponsible actions of certain persons who have now endangered our city employees,” the council meeting was canceled.
But it wasn’t the only meeting canceled. A meeting of the council’s Long Term Financial Policy Subcommittee was scheduled to begin at noon in the Mayor’s Conference Room in the City Manager’s Office.
Wysocky, a member of the three-member committee, showed up at 11:45 a.m. for the meeting, at which point he was informed it had been canceled and City Hall was closing at noon. He proceeded to express his displeasure in separate meetings with Bartley and Millison, according to sources.
Wysocky said he was annoyed because the night before he had questioned the wisdom of the lock-the-doors-at-noon plan, pointing out to Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips that it was wrong to hold a public meeting in a building locked to the public. He said he also called Bartley the prior evening to discuss the matter but never received a return call.
Wysocky said he later got a message from city staff informing him the meeting had been canceled, but he didn’t get it until after he left for the meeting.
After getting to City Hall, Wysocky said he told Bartley he would have appreciated a heads-up earlier, especially because he’d pointed out the absurdity of holding a public meeting in a locked building. But Bartley asserted that he had been prohibited by state open meeting laws from returning the call, Wysocky said.
After a brief meeting with Millison, Wysocky says he was preparing to leave the office when he saw Fowler and asked if she wanted to have a conversation with him. He said his goal was to “clear the air.” At that point, Wysocky said he hadn’t even seen the email Fowler sent to council members shortly before noon blaming the “irresponsible actions of certain persons” for the meeting cancellation. The “horrible tone” of that email reflects her state of mind prior to their meeting, he said.
Fowler has declined to say who she was referring to in that email or what danger city employees were in. Combs has said Millison gave her a “dressing down” about her comments to the media and also told her she had endangered city workers.
Against that backdrop, Fowler and Wysocky entered the unoccupied Mayor’s Conference Room, closed the door and had a loud argument that could be heard by the office staff and others in the office, sources said. Bartley’s office adjoins the Mayor’s Conference Room, and people familiar with the office said the walls are not thick.
Neither Wysocky nor Fowler would explain the issues they discussed. But Wysocky said it was Fowler who spoke to him inappropriately, raising her voice at him and making false accusations against him.
“She unloads on me and because I won’t take it I’m creating the hostile work environment?” he said.
Wysocky, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs over 200 pounds, has a booming voice and can be pointed in his criticism of city staff or political opponents.
He acknowledged raising his voice in the meeting with Fowler, who is about a foot shorter.
“I got heated, too,” he said. “It was an emotional meeting. I raised my voice back because it was the only way I could get a word in.”
Fowler declined to discuss the interaction but questioned Wysocky’s version of events.
“It’s a confidential investigation that I am not at liberty to discuss, but I strongly disagree with his characterization of the incident,” Fowler said.
Several days later, Wysocky and Fowler had an email exchange revisiting the argument. That email is what Wysocky argued should also be released, claiming it provided context to Fowler’s legal advice to the council regarding the Lopez shooting. Fowler denied the emails are about her legal advice on that subject.
The meeting wasn’t the first time the two had tangled. Several weeks earlier, when Wysocky was trying to publicly raise questions about the labor negotiations that led to a new firefighter contract, Fowler, who has been city attorney since 2008, essentially shouted him down and warned him he could be committing a misdemeanor if he spoke further.
Combs, an ally of Wysocky, called him “an opinionated and passionate man.” While she stressed that she wasn’t in the room and she believes city workers have a right to feel safe in their workplace, Combs said she couldn’t see how a closed-door argument rises to that level.
“It sounds blatantly political,” Combs said. “I think that it just sounds like Scott is partaking in political posturing to damage a rival.”
Combs said she was also surprised to hear Bartley was behind the complaint because he had gone on the radio recently and disavowed any knowledge of it.
“I’m shocked that the mayor would have initiated an investigation and then gone on the radio and said to the public that he knew nothing about it,” Combs said.
According to a transcript of an interview Bartley gave with Steve Jaxson at KSRO, in response to a question about the investigation, Bartley said “that one email is considered privileged and I don’t know anything more.”
Bartley said the interview was an “awkward conversation” because of the sensitive nature of the subject. He acknowledged he may have misspoken on-air.
“If I said I know nothing more, perhaps I misspoke, but I wasn’t going to talk about it,” he said.
Regarding the claim that the probe was politically motivated, Bartley denied that Wysocky is a political rival, though he acknowledged they sometimes disagree. He noted that because of the alternating cycle of council elections every two years, they’ve never run against one another and never will.
Wysocky, a CPA, in August announced plans to run for Sonoma County’s top financial post, auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector.
Human Resources Director Fran Elm saidwhen her department receives complaints about employee conduct, there is a wide of array of ways investigations can be performed, ranging from that person’s immediate supervisor to seniors managers to outside private investigators or attorneys, she said. It is rare for private attorneys to be hired to perform such work, she said. The city has an anti-harassment policy that says “the city maintains a strict policy prohibiting all forms of unlawful harassment or discrimination.”
Employees can file formal complaints or supervisors can report informal complaints to the Human Resources Department. It is unclear why Bartley initiated the complaint.
Questions about the investigation are now being fielded by Assistant City Attorney Suzanne Rawlings. She said the San Francisco law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore has been hired to conduct the probe, and attorney Morin Jacob is leading it. She did not return a call and email for comment.
Jacob’s professional biography says she specializes in labor and employment law, especially for public safety agencies, and has “extensive experience in conducting workplace investigations.”
Wysocky said he is frustrated that because no one has provided him with a specific allegation despite having asked for clarification more than 10 days ago.
“I’m having to defend myself and I don’t know anything about it,” he said. “This culture of secrecy needs to stop.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.