The changes came at the request of Californians Aware, an open-government watchdog group. After learning of potential Brown Act violations by the council from a Nov. 5 Irrigator editorial, Californians Aware sent the council a letter outlining those and other violations and demanding four specific changes.
The council acknowledged and agreed to all four:
• Post special meeting notices that invite people to comment on agenda items before or during the council’s consideration of those items at that special meeting.
• Announce the “existing facts and circumstances” of anticipated litigation before closed-session discussion, as required by the Brown Act.
• Announce each council member’s vote when reporting action taken in closed session.
• Post regular meeting agendas that allow for public comment on closed-session items before closed sessions.
“These omissions were not intentional, but simply an oversight or a misunderstanding of the correct procedure to follow,” the city said in a statement Monday, Nov. 9. “These changes have been implemented and will take effect immediately.”
The controversy began with an Oct. 26 special meeting that included a closed-session evaluation of City Manager Cleve Morris. It had been reported by multiple media outlets that Morris’ job might have been in jeopardy.
More than 100 people attended the meeting in support of Morris, and several wanted to speak before the council went into closed session. Instead, the council allowed them to speak only after the 2½-hour closed session and an announcement that no action had been taken against Morris.
Also at that meeting, the council voted to reimburse developer John Ramos for $27,000 in legal fees he incurred while appealing city staff’s approval of the Del Puerto Health Center’s move to Keystone Pacific Business Park — a move that was later not allowed by the City Council. When the vote was announced, the council did not reveal the vote of each council member. At the Nov. 3 regular meeting, the council voted to add that information to the minutes from the special meeting.
City Attorney George Logan argued last week that because “consideration” of the Morris item was still ongoing — no action was taken during the closed session, but Morris received direction on things to improve — the comments allowed after the session would keep the city in compliance with the law.
Logan later recommended that the city adopt all of Californians Aware’s demands — which included allowing comment before closed-session items at all meetings. However, he emphasized that, at times, the Brown Act allows for some secrecy.
“We agree with each of the four items (in the demand letter),” Logan wrote in an e-mailed response. “But we will reserve the right to protect the city’s interests where necessary and where permitted by law.”
Other violations found
In researching violations after the Oct. 26 meeting, Californians Aware Director Richard P. McKee found that in the first 10 months of 2009, the council had eight special meetings that included only closed-session items. None of those meeting agendas allowed for public comment.
McKee also found that the council consistently conducted closed sessions during regular meetings without allowing comments beforehand.
Mayor Becky Campo said the council didn’t do anything particularly different during the Oct. 26 meeting, but the unusual attention the meeting elicited drew attention to the violations. She said she takes responsibility for the oversights and suggested that it might be beneficial for the council to brush up regularly on the Brown Act.
“We are going to have issues like this in the future — maybe during my last year in service or for future councils,” Campo said. “Let this be a learning experience. We should learn from it.”
Logan, near the end of a somewhat contentious e-mail exchange with McKee, sounded an optimistic tone.
“Your organization provides an important public service in securing compliance with the Brown Act,” Logan wrote to McKee. “And I assure you, the city respects the substance and purpose of the act and … will err on the side of compliance.”
McKee said that when such violations are spotted, his group uses a city’s reaction to the challenges to determine whether they were intentional. He said Logan’s reaction, along with the city’s promise to make the requested changes, leads him to believe the breaches were not.
“It is gratifying to find a city attorney so willing to share his perspectives on open-government issues,” McKee said. “It is even more pleasing to find one willing to make changes to better protect the public’s right to be informed and involved in its city government.”
• Contact James Leonard at 892-6187 or firstname.lastname@example.org.