Like the city she serves, Caroline Fowler has been through a lot this past year.
Santa Rosa’s city attorney has found herself at the center of some highly public and unusually rancorous clashes with the city’s elected council members, who are her bosses.
She has been criticized for shouting down a city councilman during a public council meeting.
She’s been vilified for the guidance she gave to council members in the wake of the Andy Lopez shooting.
And she has been branded “rogue” for what one councilwoman calls her incorrect interpretation of state open-meeting laws.
Later this month the City Council, the majority of which strongly supports its embattled attorney, will meet behind closed doors to try to root out — possibly with the help of a mediator — the resentments that continue to fester between Fowler and her council critics.
The 56-year-old mother of two boys says she has done her best to remain professional in the face of what she contends is unprecedented and unfair criticism. She said she works hard to offer evenhanded legal advice and useful information to help city leaders make good decisions.
“Everything I’ve said or done has been out of a desire to help the city or protect the city,” Fowler said. “That’s what I care about.”
Nevertheless, Fowler has emerged as a powerful and now polarizing figure at City Hall during a key period of transition.
In previous periods of upheaval, Fowler was a reassuring, stabilizing force, said former Councilman John Sawyer. There were times, Sawyer said, when he viewed her as the “de facto city manager.”
Now, with the top two administrators gone or soon to depart, a new city manager soon to arrive from El Paso, Texas, and an election right around the corner, her influence could grow or diminish after six years in the top legal post.
Supporters laud her as a hard- working public servant with a strong will, invaluable institutional know-ledge, and commitment to keeping the city out of legal peril.
“Caroline has always had the best interests of the city and City Council’s legal well-being at heart,” former Mayor Jane Bender said.
But detractors paint her as an overbearing bureaucrat who can be defensive and inflexible when challenged, has a poor track record in court and inserts herself into council debates in a way that suggests partisanship.
“I believe that she has become a political actor, and that’s inappropriate for our city attorney,” Councilwoman Julie Combs said.
The opposing views have made Fowler a lightning rod for controversy and contributed to the impression among many that dysfunction reigns in city government.
Born in England, Fowler moved to the United States when she was 3 years old so her father could pursue a career as a tool and die maker. When she was 9, her parents split up and she and her brother moved back to England with her father. He died two years later, and she returned to Southern California to live with her mother and stepfather.
While studying communications at California State University Dominguez Hills, she became fascinated by a course in First Amendment law and decided to pursue a law degree.
She put herself through Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles with a combination of scholarships, loans and waitressing at the Ambassador Hotel. She graduated with honors in two years in 1983.