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Santa Rosa council to consider review of city attorney

  • Santa Rosa City Attorney Caroline Fowler listens to City Council members debate at a June 2014 meeting. (JOHN BURGESS/Press Democrat)

The Santa Rosa City Council will hold an unusual discussion Tuesday about whether to review the job performance of its city attorney, whose legal advice has come under fire by some council members.

The council will consider whether to schedule a closed-door performance evaluation of City Attorney Caroline Fowler as requested by Councilwoman Julie Combs.

Employee performance issues are rarely discussed openly by public agencies, but Fowler's high-profile role advising the often-fractious council has made her the target of some council members' ire.

“This will be a delicate conversation to have in open session,” said Combs, who once called Fowler a “rouge.”

It might not be a very long discussion at all, said Mayor Scott Bartley. Because employees have privacy rights, there may be very little the council can discuss about the matter in open session, he said.

“I think it's going to be pretty quick,” Bartley said. “Do we want to, yes or no? I think that's going to be pretty much it.”

Combs and Councilman Gary Wysocky have been emboldened in their criticism of Fowler following an opinion issued by the state Office of Legislative Counsel. That opinion contradicts the advice Fowler gave to Wysocky during a tense council meeting last October that he would be committing a crime by publicly discussing details of labor negotiations.

With the help of state Sen. Noreen Evans, Combs sought clarification of the issue from state Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine. The law calls for criminal penalties only when public officials participate in a closed-session meeting to hide information, not when they seek to release it, Boyer-Vine found.

Fowler cited a legal opinion by a Riverside district attorney to back her interpretation, but Boyer-Vine noted that opinion relied on a 1960 court ruling that is no longer relevant.

Fowler has acknowledged there is “a difference of opinion regarding possible sanctions for such conduct,” but stood by her advice that council members should not discuss closed-session issues.

That hasn't satisfied Combs. She says the issue of what they can and cannot reveal about employee negotiations and what the penalties are is too important to leave unclarified. She said she wants this issue “put to rest.”

“Sometimes a hat is a hat, and saying that it's not a hat is just wrong,” Combs said. “Laws have some wiggle room, but I think a hat is a hat in this case.”

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