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Task force calls for more transparency in Santa Rosa

As a way to help restore trust in local government, Santa Rosa's open government task force expressed support Thursday for a set of local rules requiring greater transparency than what's called for under state open meeting laws.

Several members suggested the city should establish its own so-called sunshine ordinance that goes further than the minimum requirements outlined in the Brown Act.

"We can't just say 'We didn't do it because the Brown Act said we didn't have to,'" Planning Commissioner Peter Stanley said. "That's not going to settle well with anybody that is showing up for meetings and trying to be involved."

The 11-member task force took no formal action and its recommendations aren't expected to be made to the City Council until later in the year.

But Thursday's discussion made it clear that several members are interested in holding city officials to a higher standard. About a dozen communities in California have local sunshine ordinances, including San Francisco and Alameda County, whose rules the task force reviewed.

Members focused on provisions of those ordinances that require city officials to disclose more information about the settlement of lawsuits. Bruce Kyse, former publisher of The Press Democrat, said it seems to him that city officials use "loopholes" in the Brown Act to justify not reporting settlements unless directly asked.

He cited an instance last year where the City Council agreed in closed session to pay $327,000 in legal fees to a law firm that has successfully challenged a special city tax on new developments. City Attorney Caroline Fowler didn't report the decision during the public portion of the meeting, something she said the Brown Act did not require because additional steps were needed to formalize the settlement. She acknowledged the settlement months later when directly asked about it by a reporter.

Kyse said the episode demonstrates the need for better reporting of settlements.

"When you finish something off, there's got to be some reporting on it other than it going into a file and waiting for someone to ask about it," Kyse said.

One of the sunshine ordinances reviewed by the task force require the city attorney to report settlements at the next council meeting after they become final. The other required settlements to be disclosed on a quarterly basis.

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