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Caricature of Santa Rosa council factored in City Hall closure before Andy Lopez protest


Santa Rosa's decision to close City Hall in advance of a protest over the shooting death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez was made in part because city leaders learned of an image posted on social media depicting City Council members with blood on a wall behind them.

Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips recently told the city's Open Government Task Force that the image was one of several that were "very concerning" to her and other city officials as they considered how to respond to the Oct. 29 march.

"One in fact was a caricature of several of our council members that was in my opinion, violent, and included blood," Phillips said at Thursday's task force meeting.

Phillips' remarks were the most detailed information offered to date about the tense days after Lopez's shooting and running up to the march from downtown Santa Rosa to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office. The city has previously denied a request by The Press Democrat to review the social media posts city officials relied upon, citing a "deliberative process" exemption.

Phillips told the task force that the decisions made in the run-up to the march were focused on protecting the safety of public employees and were made with the city's experiences of the 2011 Occupy protests in mind.

"I can tell you when a group of people enter a very small lobby and are agitated and angry, it is frightening as hell for the staff behind the counter," Phillips said. "And I will always, always make decisions that protect my staff."

Phillips was acting city manager on Monday Oct. 28, when, after consulting with other top officials including then-Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm, she decided to lock down City Hall at noon but have employees continue to work and two public meetings proceed.

She stressed that both meetings were to be fully open to the public, with staff posted at the door of the manager's office to let the public into the noon subcommittee meeting and with the doors remaining open to the City Council meeting at 4 p.m.

"Let me make that incredibly clear, because it has been repeatedly misstated," Phillips said.

When Millison returned the next day — Tuesday — additional social media posts were reviewed, including the one with the blood, and Millison decided to close City Hall entirely at noon, cancel the subcommittee and City Council meetings, and send workers home with pay. City Attorney Caroline Fowler sent an email message to council members announcing the cancellation due to "irresponsible actions of certain persons" she has declined to publicly name.

While Phillips considered the image violent, others who have seen it disagree. Robert Edmonds, a local activist who was involved in the march, said it struck him as political commentary on the news that City Council members had been directed by Millison and Fowler not to speak about the Lopez shooting.

"It wasn't targeting anybody," Edmonds said. "It was obviously a statement about blood on their hands."

The caricature showed five council members with red x-marks over their mouths against a blood-splattered backdrop and the words "Silence is compliance" and "Break the silence." The image was posted to a Facebook page called "March for Andy Lopez," where it remains online.

The page linked to a Press Democrat story that included the instructions to City Council members from Fowler and Millison to say nothing about the shooting. They said it was necessary to protect the integrity of the investigation being conducted by the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Phillips said if the image merely involved tape over council members' mouths, the reaction would have been different. "But the bullet holes and blood take it to a whole new level," she said.

The city was also getting emails and phone calls from people around the nation making hostile statements, such as wishing their children would die, Phillips said.

"It was very distressing," she said. "I think we did the very best we could with the information we had."

Task force members expressed a range of views on the closure, from strong support for the city's decision to concern that it contributed to a loss of trust in city officials. How deeply the task force looks into these and other issues remains to be seen.

There is a "fine line that needs to be walked" in deciding how much to delve into specific circumstances without politicizing the group's work, Vice Mayor Robin Swinth said. But she stressed that the issues are important to review.

"We owe it to the community, we owe it to our democracy to have a conversation about what's happening," she said.

Task force members agreed to revisit the issue May 1.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater)