Santa Rosa recently declined to pay for the printing of a neighborhood newsletter that named council members who voted in favor of allowing the BoDean asphalt plant to expand.
The city for more than a decade has paid for the printing of the West End Neighborhood News as part of its effort to support community organizations.
But the November edition of the four-page newsletter contained a blurb that raised a red flag for city officials.
A short item entitled "Santa Rosa City Council Sides with BoDean Asphalt Plant" noted that the council Nov. 6 overruled the Design Review Board's rejection of BoDean's plans to build three 82-foot-high storage silos on the Maxwell Drive property.
The item named the four council members who voted to approve the $1.5 million project over the objections of some neighbors: Mayor Ernesto Olivares, Vice Mayor John Sawyer, Scott Bartley and Jake Ours.
It also encouraged people interested in learning more to visit two websites. One is run by Citizens for Safe Neighborhoods, a group that is suing to overturn the city's approval of the project. The other is a related Facebook page called Parents Concerned About the BoDean Asphalt Plant.
The piece was written by Lea Barron-Thomas, president of the West End Neighborhood Association, who strongly opposes the project.
Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips, responsible for the city's interaction with neighborhood groups, spotted the item and literally stopped the presses. She decided the city should not fund the newsletter unless the article about BoDean was removed, said Allen Thomas, Barron-Thomas' husband.
The group decided to pay for the $120 printing itself and distributed 650 copies of the newsletter as planned, Thomas said.
But the decision peeved Thomas, who called the article factual and the city's decision "very selective and unprofessional."
The newsletter has in the past written about council members attending neighborhood events without any objection from the city, he said. Knowing the newsletter needed to remain politically neutral to retain its city funding, it has shied away from covering council votes, he said.
"So it's not completely surprising that they had a little bit of issue with it, but I don't think we were breaking any rules," Thomas said.
City Attorney Caroline Fowler explained in an email to Thomas that state campaign finance rules prohibit public agencies from funding "mailings" referencing elected officials. A mailing is defined as the distribution of more than 200 copies in a calendar month.
The city previously has been warned about the rule by the state Fair Political Practices Commission, and it risked a fine if a complaint was filed over the West End newsletter, she wrote.
"The thought behind the regulations is that no one elected official should receive additional recognition or publicity using public funds," Fowler wrote.
She said she will write guidelines to help all neighborhood groups that receive the funding understand the restrictions.
Allen said would not be surprised if his involvement with the group suing the city over the BoDean approval is motivating the closer scrutiny of the newsletter. But he said he expects future newsletters will comply with whatever rules the city drafts and the funding can return.
"We're not looking to cause a fight with the city," he said.