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PD Editorial: Changing the culture at City Hall

Santa Rosa residents want to be heard. They want to have a say at City Hall.

That’s clearer than ever to anyone who observed the Mayor’s Open Government Task Force, which spent about seven months listening to local citizens and studying other communities before delivering an action plan to the City Council on Tuesday.

It falls now on a newly constituted City Council to commit itself to increasing government transparency and fostering civic engagement.

“This conversation isn’t over,” said Robin Swinth, who co-chaired the task force. “It takes work. It takes commitment. It takes time.”

There already is an active civic culture here, with closely contested elections and organizations such as Leadership Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa Together promoting public participation in community affairs. But many citizens complain that their views are ignored, and the city at times has undermined public trust with its actions, including the decision to cancel meetings and lock the doors at City Hall to avoid protesters after the Andy Lopez shooting in 2013.

The Open Government Task Force was a product of that controversy, and its recommendations included convening town hall meetings in times of crisis.

Generally, the panel’s recommendations fall into two categories: culture and policy.

Actively soliciting input from neighborhood groups, businesses and other organizations has “the potential to shift decision making from an adversarial to a collaborative process,” the report said.

Addressing a common complaint about government, task force members also said public input should be acknowledged - not just as a matter of common courtesy but to assure people that their comments were received, even if they weren’t acted on.

On the policy side, the 10-member panel called for a city mission statement embracing community engagement and collaborative partnerships to establish expectations for policymakers and public employees. It also called for a new task force to help draft a sunshine ordinance, a law establishing public rights to government records greater than those in state and federal law. For those instances where records requests are denied, the task force endorsed an appeals process so people aren’t stuck with a choice of taking no for an answer or pursuing potentially costly litigation.

To keep the focus on these issues, the task force called on the council to add open and transparent government to its goals - a list of priorities that it reviews quarterly - and to hire a communications director to coordinate the city’s efforts.

Santa Rosa has a reputation for commissioning studies and then moving on without acting.

The city - and its citizens - can’t afford to let that happen here.

The task force devoted considerable time to examining the issue, and its members deserve thanks. Credit also goes to ex-Mayor Scott Bartley, who initiated the process and called it his proudest achievement as mayor.

With Swinth and Bartley gone from the City Council, it falls to co-chairwoman Erin Carlstrom and her fellow council members to press forward with the work started by the task force.

We plan to write more about the recommendations and to track the city’s progress on a regular basis on these pages. The first steps we will be watching for are the council adding open government to its goals, initiating a sunshine ordinance and making a communications manager or other top city official personally accountable for progress throughout City Hall.

See the task force report and recommendations at ci.santa-rosa.ca.us

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