The entrance to the Watsonville Police Department on Dec. 15, 2020.
An entrance to the Watsonville Police Department.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Watsonville committee on police transparency, accountability takes meetings behind closed doors

A police reform committee created by the Watsonville City Council has voted to have all of its meetings closed to the public. The decision was far from unanimous, with one member saying it could create the appearance of discussions being ‘nefarious and sneaky.’

When the Watsonville City Council sought to improve law enforcement accountability and transparency amid the national conversation on race and policing last year, it created a panel of citizens, councilmembers and police officers to generate recommendations on a wide range of subjects with input from residents.

But, earlier this month, members voted to keep all of the committee’s meetings closed to the public, Lookout has learned. That means residents will no longer have opportunities to personally address the 18-member body on key conversations it is having about everything from funding levels for the police department to officer training.

Some members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity say the move is a way to create a safe, focused space for members to craft their recommendations, which are due in August. But others have raised concerns that the lack of transparency could worsen community distrust.

Meanwhile, a consultant who was hired to help the committee engage with residents — and who resigned a month before the April 7 vote to close the meetings — says the decision is an example of how the city is “tone policing” members of the public and cutting off access to the decision-making process.

Regardless, the committee is within its authority to keep its proceedings private: Unlike city council meetings, ad hoc committee gatherings are typically not subject to the Brown Act, a California open meetings law that lets the public directly address a government body. Ad hoc committees are allowed to decide what kind of access to grant the public and what information to share, if any.

How the committee came to be

Like many cities across the country, Watsonville is feeling the impacts of the past year’s racial justice protests, including calls to defund the police and use the money for social services and parks and recreation programs. The city has struggled in recent decades to fund activity programs for youth, and a recent wave of gun violence has residents concerned about gangs and criminal activity.

But attitudes toward law enforcement in the city are divided, with older residents rating police more positively than young people, according to recent survey data. All of those factors have made an already-fraught conversation an even heavier task for the ad hoc committee, which is comprised of 12 citizens, three councilmembers and three police department employees.

Members of the committee — including ones with backgrounds in social work, education and law — are considering whether the police department should continue to use up about half of the city’s $41 million general fund budget, or if that money is better used in other ways. The panel is also contemplating instituting new trainings for police and other accountability measures, such as a civilian oversight group, like ones that exist in other cities.

For months, the committee has been meeting to study the inner workings of law enforcement, including the overall performance of Watsonville’s police officers, and has heard from law enforcement leaders from other parts of California.

Although most of those meetings had already been deemed confidential, some were accessible via Zoom for viewing and public comment. But after this month’s decision, members of the public will no longer be able to watch a livestream, ask questions in the Zoom chat or speak directly to the committee members while meetings are happening.

City Manager Matt Huffaker, who helps moderate the committee’s work, said there will be plenty of opportunities for Watsonville residents to chime in during separate community input sessions in the future. Also, recordings of meetings that include the full committee are posted to the city’s website after the fact, and will continue to be posted within 48 hours of the meetings.

“The committee’s work will continue to be informed by the significant public input being collected through the community engagement, including over 30 community meetings and stakeholder focus groups, along with a survey being developed by Applied Survey Research,” Huffaker wrote in an email to Lookout.

A Watsonville police squad car. Like other cities, Watsonville is grappling with calls to 'defund the police.'
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout attempted to reach all 12 community members who serve on the committee, as well as the three Watsonville councilmembers on the panel.

Some members to whom Lookout spoke said they’re seeking to create an environment where all members of the ad hoc committee feel comfortable speaking openly and honestly about difficult topics without immediate public scrutiny.

Mayor Jimmy Dutra was among those who voted to close the committee’s proceedings during the group’s April 7 meeting. “Lack of transparency would be doing everything in secret,” he wrote in an email to Lookout. “That is not what is happening here. The public can watch the meetings anytime they want and see how the committee operated. The public can always make their voices heard.”

‘Nefarious and sneaky’?

But committee member Celeste Gutierrez told Lookout she worries the effort to keep meetings out of public view will impede the group’s work in the long run because it breeds mistrust.

“The process is as important as the actual recommendations,” she said. “It’s going to give the image to the community that we are doing something nefarious and sneaky … it’s just further perpetuating that narrative that ‘y’all don’t want the community to know what you’re doing.’”

Mariana Juarez, another community member on the committee, said she too wanted meetings to stay open.

“I truly believe that our community needs and deserves as much transparency as possible about things going on in Watsonville,” she wrote in an email to Lookout. “How can we ask for community involvement while simultaneously closing another opportunity for [the] community to participate?”

Jenny T. Sarmiento, a social services worker who serves on the policing group, preferred to let the public listen in and make comments at the beginning of the meetings or at the end. She said although she found it “challenging” to pay attention to presenters in a virtual setting while the Zoom chat was percolating, she still felt there were other ways to limit that feature while maintaining other public access.

“I think it’s really important for us to hear what the community or some community members have to say because we don’t have all the same experiences,” she said.

Vote total in dispute

On the evening of April 7, the committee was presented with two options during a special closed meeting: to livestream future meetings of the full body and allow public comment, or to close the meetings and post recordings of them online afterward.

When Lookout requested a breakdown of the final vote taken April 7, Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides said the city did not have a record of how individual committee members voted, but that the end result was 11-5 in favor of closing meetings. According to other members, the final vote was closer to a tie — split 9-8 in favor of closing meetings.

One of the tiebreakers was councilmember Francisco Estrada, who helped build the committee last year with Gonzalez and former Watsonville Mayor Rebecca Garcia. Estrada said he changed his mind over the course of the group conversation on April 7.

“When we voted the first time, I actually voted to keep the meetings fully open,” he said in a written statement. “But upon listening to further discussion and in a moment of reflection prior to the second vote, it became a difficult notion for me to know that there were members of the ad hoc committee that felt they could not altogether share their truth and engage in the process in their own meaningful way.”

Estrada said he felt conflicted about the decision and has been confronted about it since.

“There is nothing easy about trying to untangle centuries of pain, injustice and inequity two hours at a time through Zoom,” he said. “And we are aware that not everyone will agree with how we seek to accomplish our tall task. I accept that. But I can promise to continue doing our best every time we are together, and for anyone that has doubts about this process, I only ask you to give us a chance to prove ourselves.”

There is nothing easy about trying to untangle centuries of pain, injustice and inequity two hours at a time through Zoom. And we are aware that not everyone will agree with how we seek to accomplish our tall task. ... For anyone that has doubts about this process, I only ask you to give us a chance to prove ourselves.

— Watsonville Councilmember Francisco Estrada, who serves on the ad hoc committee

Estrada noted that the ad hoc committee’s decision to close meetings “can always be revisited or further amended,” if the group wants to take a different route. Huffaker, the city manager, said in-person meetings open to the public could be an option once public health guidelines allow for them to happen safely.

All three police department employees serving on the committee — Captain Jorge Zamora, Adrian Alvarez-Nava and Alex Magana — also voted for closed meetings, according to several people in attendance.

When city and police officials are left out, just four of the dozen community members on the committee voted for closed meetings, according to Gutierrez’s count: Jeffrey Tillery, Rabbi Debbie Israel, Kristal Salcido and Angelica Martinez.

Israel declined to comment for this story. Tillery, Salcido and Martinez could not be reached for comment. After Gutierrez spoke publicly about the vote at a Watsonville City Council meeting on April 13, she said consultants hired to run the ad hoc group emailed her. They asked to meet with her and talk about how she violated “the agreements of the group.” Gutierrez says she didn’t agree to anything that prevents her from sharing details of what occurred — including how members voted — in full ad hoc meetings.

The reasons other members cited for closing these meetings vary. Some said disruptive public comments, including an ever-scrolling Zoom chat, made it difficult to focus on the work at hand.

Sometimes, members felt targeted by public comments and found it logistically challenging to make the public follow ground rules in a virtual meeting. Others highlighted how the committee only has two meetings of the full group left until recommendations are due to the city council (although that deadline can be extended), and want to have challenging conversations without worrying about immediate criticism if they make a misstep.

Consultant’s resignation predated meeting controversy

This month’s decision and fallout is not the first rocky terrain the group has faced.

Just last month, Joy Flynn resigned from her contractual position doing community outreach on the police reform effort. She said her goal was to find creative ways to involve Watsonville residents in the process, and seek out community voices that decision-makers usually don’t hear. But city officials rejected her recommendations or stifled her attempts, according to Flynn, who felt her leadership was undermined. City officials have not publicly commented on Flynn’s resignation, except for Huffaker calling it a “personal decision.”

Flynn told Lookout that the committee’s choice to close meetings that were previously open is an extension of issues she raised in her March 2 resignation letter. At its core, the move signals that the city is not looking to change its systems in the name of progress, Flynn said.

Watsonville’s assistant police chief, Thomas Sims, will serve as interim chief until a replacement for Honda is named.

“I just feel like there’s a major lack of trust between many of the community members and the city, and the way that it’s gone, altogether, has affirmed that feeling of lack of trust,” Flynn said. “And I feel like it was a missed opportunity for the city to gain the trust of the community by engaging with them personally, by inviting them into the conversation. And now this seems like a way to block them out.”

Flynn, a Black woman who is known for her consulting work with other municipalities including Santa Cruz and Capitola, said she knows all too well how government officials will often dismiss a message that isn’t “packaged” the right way.

She described it as “tone policing” that gets in the way of bringing everyday people into the conversation, and she said she couldn’t overcome it in Watsonville.

“There’s a level of tone policing that is happening that, again, perpetuates the system,” she said. “It’s a misuse of power, and it dismisses the voice of the community, and it was really hard for me to witness.”