Santa Rosa City Council plans discussion on its legal advice

Santa Rosa Councilwoman Julie Combs on Tuesday called for a review of the legal guidance the City Council has received about the state's open meeting law in light of an opinion she said contradicts advice given to the council by City Attorney Caroline Fowler.

Combs said she hoped that the review would focus on "what documents may have been incorrectly kept from the public based on an incorrect interpretation of the Brown Act."

"It would behoove us as a council to review the interpretations of the Brown Act that we've received that were incorrectly interpreted based on the information we have," Combs said at Tuesday's City Council meeting.

She was referring to an opinion from the state Office of Legislative Counsel that appears contrary to the guidance Fowler gave to Councilman Gary Wysocky last October, when she said he would be committing a misdemeanor if he revealed closed-session discussions about the negotiations on a new three-year contract for city firefighters.

That advice, and the manner it was offered during a sharp exchange with Wysocky, have underscored the frayed relationships between some members of the City Council and senior city staff.

Combs sought clarification on the issue from state Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine, who concluded in an May 16 letter that the Brown Act only calls for criminal penalties in the narrow instance when a member attends a closed session where an action is taken and "the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled."

Fowler spoke little during the council's discussion Tuesday, asking only one clarifying question about the scope of the review. On Monday, she said she stood by her advice to Wysocky that he shouldn't be disclosing closed-session information, but added that based on new legal interpretation there may be disagreement about the criminal penalties for doing so.

The council's discussion of the matter was limited as well. Combs and Wysocky asked that it be placed on a future meeting agenda for a full discussion. They also called for a review of outside legal firms hired by the City Attorney's Office over the past year.

Under council rules, an agenda request backed by at least two council members qualifies for consideration by the full council, though the scheduling is at the discretion of the mayor.

City Manager Kathy Millison said a full discussion probably wouldn't happen until sometime in July. She also seemed to downplay the importance of the opinion that Combs received from the state.

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