During the Santa Rosa City Council debate last week over a new contract for firefighters, Councilmember Gary Wysocky sought to shed some light on the negotiation process that led to the new three-year deal.
But when he tried to get Human Resources Director Fran Elm to discuss whether the proposed agreement differed from one presented to the City Council back in June, something unexpected happened.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler interjected, advising Wysocky that he would be committing a crime if he pursued the line of inquiry because it involved an issue discussed with the city labor negotiator in closed session.
What followed was a tense exchange that highlights how politically charged this year's labor negotiations with city workers have become, particularly with regard to the sensitive subject of public safety pensions and compensation levels.
Here's the full exchange:
Wysocky to Elm: This proposal, is it substantially different than the one that was presented to council on June 25th?
Fowler: (That was) discussed in closed session.
Wysocky: So the history of the negotiation that got us to this point cannot be shared with the public?
Wysocky: Why is that?
Fowler: That's the law. The law says that you cannot disclose the conversations between you and your labor negotiator that occur in closed session.
Wysocky: So even if the proposal that was in front of us on June 25th, theoretically ...
Fowler: That's the law, Councilmember Wysocky.
Wysocky: ... doesn't alter?
Fowler: Cannot disclose that. That's the law.
Wysocky: Can we discuss why we approved this?
Fowler: You cannot discuss any of the conversations that took place in closed session or you are committing a misdemeanor.
Wysocky: 'Any of the conversations.' If the presentations that were given us in closed session were inaccurate or misleading ...
Fowler: You cannot discuss anything that was discussed in closed session.
Wysocky: even if it leads to a ...
Fowler: (voice raised) ANYTHING!
Mayor Scott Bartley: I think she's trying to save you from getting yourself in trouble.
Wysocky: I appreciate that Mr. Mayor, I'm just looking for open government and make sure that the public understands how we got here. And to me right now I'm dismayed because transparency is an important concept and I think it's for faith in government we should be able to be as transparent as possible.
The council went on to approve the new contract, 5-2, with Wysocky and Julie Combs voting against it. Both cited the city's inability to afford the raises in the second and third years and concern about signing multi-year contracts.
City officials estimated the new contract would save taxpayers $1.8 million over the three years, but Wysocky, a CPA, questioned that accuracy of that figure. He said the calculation ignores the $560,000 per year increase in medical costs the city will see because a concession from the previous contract equal to 4.15 percent of salary was expiring.
Following the meeting, Wysocky declined to elaborate on the closed session matter he was referring to, citing Fowler's warning.
"She said I will be committing a crime," Wysocky said.