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PD Editorial: An unfortunate victory for more secrecy

  • Santa Rosa City Council member Gary Wysocky has a verbal exchange with fellow member Scott Bartley during a meeting discussing the issue of camping permits for Occupy Santa Rosa, Thursday Nov. 10, 2011. At left is City Manager Kathy Millison. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2011

The testy exchange between Santa Rosa City Attorney Caroline Fowler and City Councilman Gary Wysocky at the Oct. 15 council meeting was troubling on a number of fronts.

As Staff Writer Kevin McCallum reported Tuesday, Fowler interjected when Wysocky asked Human Resources Director Fran Elm to discuss whether the proposed three-year labor agreement between the city and firefighters differed from one that was presented to the City Council on June 25. Fowler warned Wysocky that he would be committing a crime if he pursued the question.

"You cannot discuss any of the conversations that took place in closed session or you are committing a misdemeanor," Fowler warned him.

A moment later she reiterates this when Wysocky seeks to clarify, saying, "even if it leads to a ..."

"Anything!" she interrupts in a raised voice.

On principle and on the law, the city attorney is simply wrong.

First, Wysocky is to be applauded, not scolded. The Ralph M. Brown Act of California is to ensure transparency, not to protect the kind of culture of secrecy that seems to be all-pervasive at Santa Rosa City Hall these days.

The Brown Act is set up to create greater openness through requirements that ensure government meetings are accessible and council actions are brought to light. Requirements about nondisclosure of closed-door discussions are primarily to protect the public's interest — by not compromising the public agency's negotiating position, etc. — not to keep long-term secrets from the public.

Wysocky may have been guilty of pushing the envelope here, as he is wont to do. But his intent clearly was to allow the public greater insight into why the City Council was on the verge of approving a labor contract that, while being an improvement over past agreements, ensured the growth of Santa Rosa's structural deficit.

"I'm just looking for open government and to make sure that the public understands how we got here," he said.

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