The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday decided to hold a special meeting to discuss the performance of its city attorney.

On a 4-2 vote, the council agreed to schedule a closed-door meeting to air disagreements that have flared between some council members and City Attorney Caroline Fowler.

The decision was clearly an uncomfortable one for the council and Fowler. Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom said it was awkward to be publicly discussing Fowler as she sat across from them. But Carlstrom said she nevertheless supported having the discussion as a way for some members of the council to work through their issues with Fowler.

“This is a long-standing conflict between a substantial portion of our council, and I think it’s in everyone’s best interests to have the opportunity to have a productive conversation,” Carlstrom said.

She said she believed a facilitator and possibly even an outside legal expert should be called in to help moderate whatever the council does during its discussion. She said the meeting was in part about “re-establishing the rapport and the relationship between our city attorney and council members who are going to be here for quite some time.”

Councilwoman Julie Combs requested a closed-door conversation be scheduled after she solicited a second opinion about some of Fowler’s legal advice from the state Office of Legislative Counsel. That opinion contradicted the advice Fowler gave to Councilman Gary Wysocky during a tense council meeting last October that he would be committing a crime by publicly discussing details of labor negotiations.

Fowler’s last performance review was just completed in the spring, but Combs said the council didn’t have the Office of Legislative Counsel’s opinion at that time.

Vice Mayor Robin Swinth stressed that she supported holding a closed session only if it was clear that it was not another performance evaluation of Fowler.

Mayor Scott Bartley and Councilman Ernesto Olivares voted against the measure. Combs, Swinth, Carlstrom and Wysocky voted in favor.

“I’m still not sure I really understand what’s going on here,” Bartley said at one point.

Olivares said any issues the council wanted to address with Fowler should be done during her regular annual performance evaluation.

Work on Fowler’s next evaluation would normally begin in the fall. The council has the option of deciding after the special meeting that it wants to conduct another performance review of Fowler sooner than the fall.

The council ultimately asked City Manager Kathy Millison to find a facilitator who could conduct such a meeting to ensure it is productive. Fowler requested the right to be present at the meeting so she could explain any of the advice she has given the council.

It was not clear how long it would take for the meeting to take place, Bartley said it would be unfair to Fowler to allow the process to drag out.

“I think it is important to remember the city attorney is our employee and she has rights,” Bartley said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @citybeater.

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