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Seeking government transparency in Santa Rosa

Eight months after it was formed, the city’s Open Government Task Force is putting the finishing touches on recommendations it hopes will make it easier for residents to engage with their government.

The nine-member panel, which was formed in the wake of the death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, found that City Hall needs to restore public trust by being more transparent, engaged with the community and adept at communicating in times of crisis.

Suggestions include hiring a communications director who advocates for openness, adopting a sunshine ordinance that requires city officials to be more transparent than required by state and federal law, and making it easier for residents to participate in City Council meetings.

“We feel confident that our report presents a constructive beginning to a new era of transparency, openness and collaboration for Santa Rosa,” Vice Mayor Robin Swinth and Councilwoman Erin Carlstrom, co-chairs, wrote in a letter to the council.

The task force was formed after the city came under withering criticism for how it responded to the Lopez shooting. The teen was shot just outside city limits by a sheriff’s deputy who said he mistook the airsoft BB gun Lopez was carrying for an assault weapon.

City leaders responded by instructing City Council members to say nothing about the shooting and shutting down City Hall on the day of a peaceful downtown protest. Subsequent questions about what council members can and cannot say about labor negotiations and a secret personnel investigation into the behavior of Councilman Gary Wysocky compounded the public impression that city government wasn’t being transparent.

The task force was made up of community members from diverse backgrounds who brought their own concerns forward and also worked hard to listen to the public during two public forums, Swinth said.

It will be up to the new City Council to decide whether to implement any of its suggestions. The group’s final meeting is next Thursday, and its report will be delivered to the council Dec. 2.

“We got this conversation rolling,” Swinth said. “The conversation is not over. There is more work to be done.”

The panel suggested the City Council set “open and transparent government” as one of its goals and require quarterly reports for how the city is meeting that goal.

The most important step the city could make toward that goal is to hire a communications director, the group found. The executive-level position would be responsible for fostering community engagement, partnering with community groups, and making other changes, such as revisions to make the city’s website more resident-friendly.

“This is intended to be a position that actually champions the value of transparency, openness and communication,” Swinth said.

The group also analyzed the sunshine ordinances of several communities and concluded that the city should pass its own ordinance requiring a degree of openness exceeding the requirements of the state open meeting and public records laws.

These include providing earlier and more detailed notice to the public of City Council agenda items, establishing time-certain periods for public comment that are more accommodating to the public, and requiring the city attorney to report all legal settlements over $50,000, instead of the past practice of waiting for someone to inquire.

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

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