By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The way Santa Rosa officials responded in the wake of the shooting of Andy Lopez continues to divide City Council members, with some continuing to criticize key decisions while others are seeking to move on.
In the tense days following the 13-year-old’s death, Santa Rosa officials made three decisions that have dogged them since: instructing City Council members to say nothing about the shooting; planning to hold a public meeting behind locked doors; and closing City Hall and canceling a City Council meeting in response to a nearby protest march.
City Manager Kathy Millison on Tuesday night defended those decisions to the council during a study session meant to explore how the city communicates in emergencies and critical incidents. She said City Hall staff acted “admirably” in the face of protests a week after Lopez was killed. The result was that city employees and protesters alike were kept safe, she said.
Mayor Scott Bartley agreed, stressing public safety was paramount in the various decisions taken.
“Nothing happened and no one was hurt. What is wrong with erring on the side of safety?” Bartley asked.
But Councilman Gary Wysocky again leveled criticism that the measures the city took were either poorly thought out or lacked transparency.
City officials responded in two ways to reports that protesters were planning a large march on Tuesday, Oct. 29, beginning at noon at Old Courthouse Square.
On Monday afternoon and evening, seeking to strike a balance between the safety of City Hall employees and the need for the public’s business to go forward, city officials planned to lock lobby doors at noon on Tuesday but keep city staff on the job.
There were two public meetings planned for Oct. 29, a noon meeting of a three-member council financial subcommittee and the 4 p.m. full City Council meeting. Because the subcommittee meeting has historically been sparsely attended by the public, city staff figured they could unlock the doors for anyone seeking to attend that meeting. This would give them the ability to keep the doors locked in the event protesters turned their attention to city offices.
It had happened before. During the Occupy movement there were instances where protesters crowded into the lobby of the City Manager’s Office and shouted demands, rattling some city staff. The goal was to avoid a similar episode.
But on Tuesday morning, the game plan changed. After city officials were further briefed by then-Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, Millison made the decision to close City Hall at noon and send employees home. That left the City Council with no staff, forcing Bartley to cancel the council meeting, a decision he said was “perfectly logical.”
Wysocky has taken issue with both decisions.
“How do you have a public meeting in a locked building?” he asked “That to me should never be repeated.”
After a robust debate, Bartley and Councilwoman Robin Swinth both conceded that Wysocky had a point, but urged him to spend more of his energy focusing on the future instead of the past.
“Where do we go to advance this?” Bartley asked. “Because we’re looking for a place to move forward and it seems like we just keep going back and repeating the same thing.”
Wysocky also questioned why more detailed information about the decision to close City Hall wasn’t being shared with the council.
“To me as an elected representative, that’s part of our charge, to review those decisions,” Wysocky said.
Millison has said that her decision to close City Hall came after reviewing “hostile postings about the city on social media that raised concerns.” She has declined to make that information public.
On Tuesday she said she didn’t rely on one piece of information to make the decision but rather “a collection of information that was provided to us as a part of the assessment that was done by the police department as well as the emergency plan.”
Millison called some of that information “privileged.” City Attorney Caroline Fowler said public officials have a right to keep confidential certain information used as part of a “deliberative process.” She said the information could not be shared with the council even in a closed session.
Fowler suggested that the council raise the issue further during the annual performance review process if they feel either she or Millison handled the closure inappropriately. But that didn’t satisfy Wysocky, either.
“I don’t want to wait until the summer to opine whether it was proper to shut down the government, because that’s in fact what happened,” he said.
Councilwoman Julie Combs also grilled Millison for what she has called the “gag order” placed over the council in the days after Lopez’ death.
Millison explained that city council members were instructed not to speak about the shooting investigation for several reasons. One was because the shooting happened in the jurisdiction of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the city wanted to avoid interfering with statements being put out by the county. They also wanted to preserve the integrity of the Santa Rosa Police investigation of the incident that was just getting underway, she said.
In addition, the City Charter calls for the mayor to be the spokesperson for the city, and having multiple people making statements on behalf of the city would be “chaos,” she said.
Combs called that a “hierarchical messaging process” that is dated in the age of social media. She argued that instead of being told not to say anything, council members could have helped get a coherent, sympathetic message out to the community.
“I think we as a group can figure out ways to disseminate information a lot more effectively,” Combs said.
Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom agreed. She asked for council members to be kept better informed about such incidents so they can communicate with their constituents.
“For a lot of people we’re the closest point of contact,” Carlstrom said. “We’re the publicly elected people. It’s our job to know what’s going on.”
The council is planning another session Thursday morning to discuss how to work together effectively. The session starts at 8:30 a.m. in Room F of the Utility Field Operations building, 35 Stony Point Road.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or email@example.com. On Twitter @citybeater.