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Santa Rosa to review how it handles emergencies, but won’t revisit contentious incidents

The Santa Rosa City Council agreed Tuesday to review its guidelines for decision-making during emergencies, but stopped short of asking staff to investigate the events that lead to the closure of City Hall in the aftermath of the Andy Lopez shooting.

City Councilwoman Julie Combs acknowledged that she was broaching a sensitive subject that risked reopening old wounds, but said she was doing so “in the interests of open and transparent government” and with an eye toward the future.

“I’m trying to walk a fairly fine line here,” Combs said.

She wanted City Manager Sean McGlynn to bring forward a report outlining the “written guidelines clarifying the basis and chain of decision making” and communication protocols for “urgent and emergency incidents.”

She also requested a determination for whether those guidelines were followed in three incidents related to protests over the death of Andy Lopez, the 13-year-old who was shot by a sheriff’s deputy as he carried an airsoft gun designed to look like an assault rifle.

The first was the decision, made by then-acting city manager Jennifer Phillips, to hold a council financial subcommittee meeting in a conference room in City Hall behind a door that, out of safety concerns, would be locked but monitored by city staff to ensure residents interested in participating in the meeting could attend. Combs characterized this as “filtering people at the door.” The meeting later was canceled.

The second was the decision to cancel the City Council meeting scheduled for later that same day, Oct. 29. Former Mayor Scott Bartley said he made the decision to cancel the council meeting after then-City Manager Kathy Millison opted, after additional briefing from police officials, to close City Hall and send workers home at noon.

The third was how the city handled a Dec. 10 protest after the decision was announced to return the deputy who shot Lopez, Erick Gelhaus, to patrol. In that incident, protesters holding white crosses converged on the City Council chambers as retiring Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm was being recognized. Protesters initially were blocked by police from entering the chambers but, after a scuffle, made it in, after which the meeting was suspended. One protester was arrested.

Councilman Gary Wysocky, who was subsequently censured by his colleagues for his alleged poor treatment of city staff in the wake of the Lopez shooting, supported Combs’ request.

He said it was important for the city to learn from its mistakes so it doesn’t repeat them. As he has in the past, Wysocky took issue with the fact that Millison never fully disclosed the details that caused her to close City Hall in response to what was a peaceful protest. City officials cited a “deliberative process” exemption to state open records laws they claimed covered the information Millison relied on in her decision.

Phillips eventually told her side of the story to the city’s Open Government Task Force.

“She’s never shared it with the council, and I have a huge problem with that,” Wysocky said.

Mayor John Sawyer, Vice Mayor Chris Coursey and Schwedhelm, who all were elected to the council in November, said they supported the first half of Combs’ request but didn’t see the value in revisiting the events of 18 months ago, especially given that Millison and Phillips don’t work for the city anymore. Millison retired and Phillips is the city manager of St. Helena.

Coursey said he feels the events were “mishandled” and he would support an inquiry if he thought it would resolve the matter once and for all, but didn’t think that was likely.

“I don’t necessarily think that revisiting the past is a way to learn from it, in this case,” he said.

Carlstrom said she was willing to support the full inquiry, but if one wasn’t to occur, the council needed to find another way to address the tensions underlying the council.

“Unless these issues are dealt with to satisfaction, they will continue to come up,” Carlstrom said.

What she and others were referencing was the bad blood and resentments that, despite the council’s improved conduct, remain to this day between council members and city staff, particularly Wysocky’s distrust of Carlstrom and his criticism, along with Combs, of City Attorney Caroline Fowler, who was involved in some of the decision making at issue.

Combs ultimately agreed to remove the second part of her request after Coursey proposed the report include a discussion of “when, how and why” people can be prevented from attending public meetings. The motion passed 6-0 with Ernesto Olivares absent.

Sawyer said he was pleased a solution was found that kept the council looking forward.

“We’ve done a good job. We’ve come a long way,” Sawyer said. “I hope that as time goes on our healing continues.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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