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PD Editorial: The need for a Santa Rosa sunshine law

In years past, national Sunshine Week has served as an opportunity to expose informational black holes that exist at the federal and state levels.

Last year, our focus was a budget proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown that would have allowed cities, counties, and school districts to avoid their legal obligation to help citizens locate government records and to notify them within 10 days about the status of their request.

It was a short-sighted proposal, one that Brown and lawmakers quickly retracted amid stiff opposition from the public and press. To make amends, the Legislature, at the governor's behest, approved a constitutional amendment that makes clear local agencies, including cities, counties and special districts, are required to comply with the Public Records Act and the Brown Act, regardless of the potential or imagined impact on finances.

The amendment will go before state voters on June 3 as Proposition 42. We'll save our analysis and recommendation of the measure for another day. Our primary focus this year during Sunshine Week concerns what's happening at Santa Rosa City Hall, where despite state laws underscoring the primacy of openness, secrecy has too often been the first order of business. This has been evident in a number of decisions in the past year including:

The City Council's decision in January of last year to keep secret the names of those who applied for a council vacancy until after a certain deadline. Had the public been allowed to vote on a successor, the names of candidates would have been made public when they filed.

The failure of city officials to report after a closed-door session in February that they had agreed to a $327,000 settlement in a lawsuit by builders over a controversial tax on new construction. Because of this violation of the Brown Act, the public didn't find out about the settlement until three months later.

An attempt on Oct. 29 to conduct a City Council meeting behind locked doors out of fear of interruption by people at Courthouse Square protesting the Andy Lopez shooting.

And in perhaps the most egregious example of secrecy of the past year, the city's sudden and unexplained decision to shut down City Hall at noon that day and cancel the City Council meeting shortly after one council member raised concerns about the legality of holding an otherwise "open" public meeting behind locked doors. City Manager Kathy Millison and City Attorney Caroline Fowler then added to the obfuscation by refusing to disclose even to City Council members the nature of the "reports and the irresponsible actions of certain persons" that reportedly prompted the shutdown. The city manager offered the porous explanation that releasing the facts "could compromise some of the city's security issues" — even while acknowledging no investigation, criminal or otherwise, was occurring.

What's resulted from all of this is infighting among top city officials, selective disclosure of official city correspondence and eroding public trust.

This nonsense needs to stop.

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