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PD Editorial: Public remains in dark about Santa Rosa dispute


Given concerns about Santa Rosa's penchant for secrecy, one would think city officials might err on the side of disclosure at some point, if only for a change of pace.

But once again, when presented with an opportunity to abide by the spirit of the California Public Records Act and Proposition 59, city officials have chosen the path of most resistance — opting to keep things secret.

This latest case involves a six-month investigation into charges that City Councilman Gary Wysocky created a hostile work environment at City Hall. This centered on an internal dispute with City Attorney Caroline Fowler about — what else? —secrecy.

City Manager Kathy Millison hired an outside attorney to investigate a complaint filed by Mayor Scott Bartley following a loud argument he heard between Wysocky and Fowler. What the public has been told is that the argument occurred the morning of a Santa Rosa protest over the shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez. The public also has been told the argument concerned the decision to close City Hall, halt a City Council Finance Committee meeting and cancel a City Council meeting later the same day.

But to date not much else has been revealed. Not the reasons for the closure of City Hall. Not the reasons for canceling the council meeting and not the reasons for the costly investigation of Wysocky.

The inquiry by San Francisco attorney Morin Jacob was completed in recent weeks, and her findings were summarized in a three-page letter sent to the city and to Wysocky. The councilman says the letter clears him of the allegations. Although he acknowledges it says he treated the mayor and city attorney with disrespect, he disputes the charge.

"Disagreements are part of the democratic process," he said. Overall, he called the investigation "a huge waste of taxpayer dollars."

The only recommendation for action, Wysocky said, was for the City Council to pass "a resolution re-adopting a policy on code of conduct for board and commission members."

Meanwhile, Bartley and Millison have declined to talk about the report or release its findings, labeling it a confidential personnel matter.

The Press Democrat has submitted a California Public Records Act request for a copy of the report. Unfortunately, we're not optimistic that the city will be forthcoming with the information. But it should be.

The city is mistaken if it believes it can waive off its responsibilities under the California Public Records Act by claiming this is a personnel matter. California courts have not been supportive of cities and other public agencies that have refused to disclose investigations of city officials accused of misconduct. Reason suggests this would be particularly true when the target of that investigation is an elected official who is willing to waive any presumed right to confidentiality.

Nonetheless, Wysocky has declined to release the report himself, stating his concerns about legal reprisals from the city.

We're not persuaded such a risk exists, but the councilman is under no legal obligation to release the report. The city is.

It's true that California state law, through the Public Records Act and the California constitution, protects the right of employees from disclosure of certain information in their personnel files. But these aren't personnel records that the newspaper is seeking. They aren't performance reviews, financial records or medical histories. It's merely a factual investigation into a blowup at City Hall involving two or more high-ranking city officials.

Release of the report would help unravel many of the mysteries that shroud what happened at City Hall in the days following the Lopez shooting. In short, the merits of disclosure far outweigh the benefit of nondisclosure.

The state constitution is founded on the presumption of openness, that the public has a right to know what its civic officials, particularly its elected leaders, are doing and how they are spending taxpayers money.

We don't see how the public benefits from more secrecy at City Hall.