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Mayor accuses Santa Rosa councilman of creating hostile work environment

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.

Gary Wysocky (PD FILE)

Gary Wysocky (PD FILE)

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 kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

15 Responses to “Mayor accuses Santa Rosa councilman of creating hostile work environment”

  1. Villainess says:

    In my extended previous personal dealings with Councilmember Wysocky I never felt him to exhibit any but a gently passionate idealism. I’m of quite short stature but never once felt threatened nor saw him threaten anyone else. He can hardly help his booming voice, but in his words he always attempted to find fairness despite the corrupt world we live in.

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  2. James Bennett says:

    Baaad German.

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  3. Jason Hernandez says:

    FIRE FOWLER. The city council needs to do this immediately. When your lawyer advises an unconstitutional action and pursues it up to the Appellate level and loses over and over—time to fire her. When she aggressively directs the council and oversteps her position—time to fire her. Isn’t she an at-will employee? Get rid of her.

    Wysocky is a bully, no question about it. A two-bit small town accountant–big deal. We don’t want him in the county position, either. The thought of him as mayor is chilling.

    Bartley is a small town guy who still can’t believe he’s off the Planning Commission and sitting as mayor. A decent enough person but just a bureaucrat.

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  4. Not Wysocky's First Fight With Staff says:

    yeah, yeah, yeah….Wysocky’s right about the City needing more transparency but this is not the first time the hothead Wysocky picked a fight with city staff. He did it years ago too. He doesn’t know his role and he has a well deserved rep as a bully. Name calling, a specialty. Shaking down local business people, been known to happen. The problem with Wysocky is also he plays a different tune when he get in front of the cameras than when he is in private.

    He’s not a gentleman you want elected at the County level to …uh…collect your taxes. The legal liability will only multiply and the temper tantrums escalate.

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  5. Kirstin says:

    Our city government is making itself look petty, secretive, and both time- and money-wasting. Knock it off.

    Closing buildings and cancelling meetings due to a protest isn’t prudent; it is just uncalled-for projection of official fright… hardly the image of good leadership.

    Mr. Wysocky is right to have questioned these closings and subsequent actions.

    I urge the mayor, the city manager and city attorney to turn to more productive efforts now than spending money and time on some kind of clandestine investigation of a member of the city council. Get on with city business, please.

    For example, the city needs to select a new police chief. Let’s have one who will ensure that training of city police prepares the officers to handle situations they may encounter with the least amount of force necessary. That would be productive city government action.

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  6. Diane says:

    All of this is much to do about nothing. This is politics plane and simple. It is not creating a hostile workplace. It is politics.

    If the city attorney, city manager do not like the political game they need to get out of town and find real jobs.

    The mayor needs to step outside with his buddy and finish the argument like men, not like girly men.

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  7. Grapevines says:

    Well the group of morons, wacko’s, misguided and misfits that we see in the Legislature in Sacramento mostly got their start where? Why City Government.

    This shouldn’t surprise anyone really. It’s the same poop we see coming out of Sacramento only on a smaller scale.

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  8. Paul O. says:

    Wysocky is an arrogant ideologue. No one can reason with him. But, at least he is not as sleezy like Michalel Allen.

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  9. Greg Karraker says:

    It’s a total obscenity when these overpaid, unelected city staffers and attorneys act as if the council, and by extension, the public at large, works for them instead of the other way around.

    I disagree with Wysocky on almost everything, but in this case, creating a hostile work environment was not nearly enough. He should have immediately made a motion that Fowler should be immediately fired.

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  10. Elephant says:

    Councilman Gary Wysocky wants transparency in government. Mayor Scott Bartley and the obsequious City Attorney Caroline Fowler want to hide reality from the people. Mr. Wysocky, I take your side here.

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  11. Melanie says:

    Wysocky is a bully, plain and simple. He treats city staff as if they are moronic incompetents. They are not. It’s about time someone called him on the way he treats people.

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  12. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    I think this is political in nature. Wysocky is conservative where he needs to be (money)and progressive too. I think he does a good job.

    I think Bartley is the problem. How is it his business anyway? Is he the boss? Or is he interested in ending Wysocky’s political career?

    What a waste of public money!

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  13. bear says:

    I warned against this and am not happy to be proven right.

    At least the BOS has the brains to follow legal advice and keep their mouths shut.

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  14. steve humphrey says:

    What a waste of taxpayer time and money.

    Who cares who started the yelling and fingerpointing. Better Mr. Bartley sit both of them down and calmly discuss their differences. I think a Mayor would do that.

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  15. PapaESoCo says:

    Wysocky and Fowler have an argument and Bartley “clutches his Pearls” and files a complaint against Wysocky. And, then, Bartley publicly denies knowing anything? Wysocky summed it up nicely with “This is a Kafkaesque investigation at taxpayers’ expense…”. All this dysfunction at City Hall seems to center around Bartley, Fowler, and Millison; as well as the “…culture of secrecy…”. I agree, this has to stop, just hope voters remember when these clowns come up for re-election. Also, the City Attorney and Administrator need to go.

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