By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Santa Rosa City Council formally rebuked Councilman Gary Wysocky on Tuesday for what it called his abusive behavior toward city staff, a move that came despite a raucous and belligerent crowd of Wysocky’s supporters who shouted down, hissed at and booed the council majority as they sought to justify their unprecedented censure vote.
The circus-like atmosphere of the meeting began when residents started filling the council chambers wearing signs stating “I support Gary” and holding others that read “Stop the witch hunt!”
It intensified as speakers praised the second-term councilman and denounced the proposal to censure him, a punishment several noted the county Board of Supervisors had not even seen fit to level at Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who was acquitted in April of attempting to peek into a female neighbor’s home.
And then it got downright ugly when the crowd, despite Mayor Scott Bartley’s pleas that they show some respect, repeatedly interrupted council members, shouting “Shame!” and demanding they resign.
“I did not start this,” said Bartley, who filed the complaint against Wysocky after overhearing a loud argument he had with City Attorney Caroline Fowler in October. “Mr. Wysocky started this by his behavior.”
That alleged behavior was summarized in the censure motion itself, though several speakers claimed the motion and a heavily redacted investigative report where too vague or lacking in specifics to justify such a move. Councilwoman Julie Combs propped up beside her nameplate at the dais a sheet of paper from the report that had every word blacked out, a measure city officials said was necessary to protect employees’ privacy.
The motion stated that Wysocky violated the city’s code of conduct “in that his conduct towards city staff was disrespectful, not civil, detracted from a positive and constructive working environment, was abusive given his standing as an elected official as compared to the standing of city staff, did not serve to increase public confidence in city government and was not in keeping with the high standards of behavior required of council members.”
That language was gleaned from the report on the investigation triggered by Bartley’s complaint and conducted by an outside legal firm with expertise in employment law, Liebert Cassidy Whitmore. The probe was supposed to be secret but the redacted report was released by the council after Bartley complained that Wysocky was mischaracterizing its findings. The seven-month investigation has cost the city nearly $50,000 to date.
In the end, the council voted 4-2 for censure, a formal expression of disapproval and the first such action the City Council is known to have taken against one of its members. Bartley, Jake Ours, Robin Swinth and Ernesto Olivares voted in favor of censure. Wysocky and Combs voted against. Erin Carlstrom was absent.
First elected in 2008, Wysocky has been in the minority on the council since the 2010 election handed control to Bartley and his allies. He has frequently sparred with members of the majority and has earned a reputation as a dogged but at times abrasive figure on the council.
Shortly before the vote, Wysocky said that he was sorry if he offended members of the administrative staff in the city manager’s office. But he made a clear distinction between them and senior staff, for whom he had no such apology.
He said that out of a desire to put the matter behind the city he had been prepared to let his previous comments on the matter stand, but after listening to the lengthy prepared remarks by his colleagues taking him to task, said he felt compelled to respond.
“I am ashamed to be part of this council if it puts this resolution forward,” Wysocky said. “It is not right.”
Wysocky sought to add context and explain the confrontations at City Hall that led to the personnel investigation.
He said that on Oct. 28, he challenged Acting City Manager Jennifer Phillips about the plan to lock City Hall doors at noon the following day in response to a march protesting the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.
A meeting of the financial subcommittee Wysocky serves on was scheduled to go forward at noon, and Wysocky said he noted that he objected to such a meeting being held behind closed doors. Phillips has said the while the office doors were to be locked, staff planned to open them for people seeking to attend the meeting.
When Wysocky arrived at City Hall shortly before noon on Oct. 29, he was surprised to learn the meeting had been cancelled and had words with Bartley and later with Fowler behind closed doors. He suggested Tuesday that the tension surrounding the Oct. 22 fatal shooting of Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy had contributed to his state of mind that that day. He said he “would be less than human” if it hadn’t affected him.
After trying to put some of his behavior in context, he accused the mayor of lying on a local radio show when he claimed he knew nothing about the investigation. He said he would never “spend $50,000 on a personal vendetta.”
Earlier in the meeting, speaker after speaker lined up to support Wysocky and urge the council to drop the motion.
“It’s time to put this to rest. It’s taken up way too much of your time. It reflects badly on the council, but more importantly it reflects badly on the city,” said Chris Coursey, a candidate for City Council and former Press Democrat columnist. “I’m urging you to put this resolution in the trash can where it belongs, get back to work and save the city any further embarrassment.”
Other speakers praised Wysocky as a champion of the First Amendment, strong force for transparency and accountability in city government and voice for regular people.
A CPA, Wysocky lost his bid to unseat David Sundstrom, the county auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector, in the June 3 primary election.
“Gary Wysocky has the courage to ask the hard questions,” said Santa Rosa school board member Laura Gonzalez. “To single out Gary Wysocky smacks of partisanship, of favoritism and punishment.”
“For you to go on this witch hunt against Councilman Wysocky is just inexcusable,” added Alice Chan, a Sebastopol resident and Democratic Party activist. “He’s a whistleblower and a hero in my eyes.”
Members of the council majority pushed back, citing time and again the plain and damning language in the report. They said they were compelled to act on behalf of city employees.
Ours listed off phrases in the report describing Wysocky’s alleged behavior, including “abusive” and “not civil.”
He then sarcastically asked the audience: “So you folks are supporting that, I take it?”
The comment drew loud jeers.
Swinth, who introduced the motion, noted that the report outlined not isolated incidents but a pattern of behavior.
“In this section of the report, witnesses described Mr. Wysocky’s behavior as at times being aggressive, angry, intimidating, harsh, bullying and having gone on for too long,” Swinth said. “These are serious conclusions – especially the conclusion which states that, given Mr. Wysocky’s standing as a city councilperson, relative to the standing of Santa Rosa city staff, his loud, angry and disrespectful conduct was abusive.”
(Staff Writer Kevin McCallum can be reached at 521-5207 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @citybeater)