In this video, there are several clips from open discussion
during San Juan Bautista’s
meeting Saturday. The law bars the council members from engaging
in any discussion with one another or the audience about topics
that are not included in an agenda. In this case, the agenda was
merely a flyer announcing the meeting as an open discussion. Here,
they talk about becoming a charter city, installing traffic cameras
and dealing with the state parks’ budget problems.
In this video, there are several clips from open discussion during San Juan Bautista’s “town hall” meeting Saturday. The law bars the council members from engaging in any discussion with one another or the audience about topics that are not included in an agenda. In this case, the agenda was merely a flyer announcing the meeting as an open discussion. Here, they talk about becoming a charter city, installing traffic cameras and dealing with the state parks’ budget problems.
The San Juan Bautista City Council violated the state open meetings law Saturday by having an open discussion with some residents at a scheduled “town hall” gathering without posting an agenda listing specific topics, the city attorney acknowledged Monday.
With a full table of five city council members representing a quorum of the legislative body, the San Juan Bautista council discussed such matters as becoming a charter city, installing traffic cameras and giving a 5 percent break to downtown businesses offering public use of bathrooms.
The council openly discussed these issues and others with the public and without properly posting specific topics on an agenda – as required in California’s Brown Act governing open meetings. The penalty for breaking the law is a misdemeanor, while civil remedies include voiding any actions potentially undertaken by a legislative body.
When the Free Lance objected to the format during Saturday’s meeting, council members and the city manager denied any wrongdoing. But their own city attorney, who was not in attendance at the San Juan Bautista Community Center for the town hall, acknowledged Monday that they violated the law.
An expert of California’s laws governing open meetings and records underscored the nature of their actions.
“What occurred is an egregious violation of the Brown Act,” said California Newspaper Publishers Association legal adviser Jim Ewert.
A small group of about 10 citizens joined the council in the meeting. City Manager Steve Julian sat in the audience, along with a sheriff’s deputy and a public works employee.
The Brown Act is an open meetings law that forces government officials to properly notice the public of meeting times and subjects up for discussion or action. The act’s goal is to allow citizens to have the opportunity to speak on topics of personal interest, and to give the general public an idea of what to expect.
The Brown Act is put into effect anytime there is a quorum, or a majority, of officials gathered to speak or receive information. In a flyer, the meeting was advertised as a “free exchange of information on issues of community-wide importance,” but did not detail subjects.
Two days after the meeting and in response to a Free Lance inquiry, City Attorney George Thatcher admitted in a written statement that the Brown Act had been broken.
“You are correct that a notice and agenda in compliance with certain Brown Act requirements were not posted prior to the meeting,” Thatcher said in an e-mail response. “Staff was advised to do so but inadvertently a formal notice was not posted, thus, at a minimum, there was no publicly circulated brief general description of agenda items.”
Regardless of the meeting format, an itemized agenda also has to be made available to the public, said Ewert, the open meetings expert.
“There needs to be some level of specificity,” he said on Thursday. “How it is – is too open.”
The only notice, and description of the meeting, was the flyer given to the public a week before.
According to that city announcement: “Town hall meetings are held periodically as designated by the City Council. A Town Hall Meeting is for the free exchange of information on issues of community-wide importance, but there shall be no discussion of any issue pending before the City Council or the Planning commission, and no action will be taken.”
Ewert called that description insufficient.
As it was written, the agenda allowed the board to listen to the public, but without agenda topics council members are barred from commenting to the public or to other members on such topics under their jurisdiction, Ewert said.
“It does not permit them to talk about anything that is brought up,” Ewert said. “They cannot engage with any member of the public or themselves. If they cross that line, they are in violation.
“There is a lot of mischief – mischief that the Brown Act was designed to stop.”
Concerns broached before meeting
After the Free Lance last week noted concerns about the meeting’s format, Julian responded Thursday by stating the meeting was a “study session” and it was okay under the San Juan municipal code.
The code, section 2 article 1-105, states: “Town meetings may be held on call of the City Council. A town meeting is for free exchange of information on issues of community-wide importance, but there shall be no discussion of an issue then pending before the City Council or Planning Commission. No action may be taken at town meetings.”
No specific agenda was created because it was up to the public to come up with the topics of discussion, Julian said.
“It’s open to the public. It is up to them to say whatever they want,” he said.
Julian last week added that Thatcher of Wellington Associates noted how the meeting’s format was appropriate. In addition, Julian had said the city has held the town hall meetings for years under the same rule.
“They are not going to vote on anything,” Julian said prior to it.
The city council also was given a set of ground rules to follow to avoid breaking the Brown Act, Julian said. When asked for specific rules, Julian advised the Free Lance to look at the city’s municipal code.
No votes occurred during Saturday’s meeting, but the board did decide to look at installing additional stop signs through town streets and offering a 5 percent discount on businesses’ water bills if they allowed public use of restrooms, which are scarce in the Mission City.
In one of the main topics of discussion, council members brought up the idea of turning San Juan Bautista into a “charter city.”
Council member Tony Boch announced he was investigating the possibility of becoming a charter city because it would give San Juan the ability to create its own laws, he said.
“I’m really getting tired of the state telling us what we can and can’t do,” Boch said. “I don’t know how we could get control back of our city. The county and state are controlling our destiny.”
A charter city allows voters to “determine how their city government is organized and, with respect to municipal affairs, enact legislation different than that adopted by the state,” according to the state’s charter city website, cacities.org/chartercities.
Shortly after Boch’s comments, Councilwoman Jolene Cosio asked the public about their thoughts on the idea of turning San Juan into a charter city. One audience member said she thought it was a good idea to examine it.
The board then directed its city staff to gather information about becoming a charter city.
The council also briefly discussed concerns about drivers traveling at a high speed through downtown, an increase of graffiti in the city, and that the historical building codes are too restrictive. Boch complained that it takes too long to fix issues with the historic buildings, he said.
The 90-minute meeting included an array of back-and-forth discussion between council members, Julian and residents.
Array of matters discussed
Before opening the meeting to the public, each member gave a small statement about happenings in the city.
Mayor Andy Moore said the most important priority for the city is to figure out its budget restraints and complete the water project. Councilwoman Maggie Bilich expressed interest in creating an additional bus stop that was easier for the disabled to use.
Cosio announced the council has no intention of cutting the funding to its volunteer fire department.
“We do not want to cut anything from the volunteer fire department,” she said. “It is already cut to the bone. We do not want to cut anything from police and safety – that is already cut to the bone. We are looking mostly at engineering and city maintenance.”
Moore added that officials were examining a 10-percent reduction in personnel costs.
“Until this gets better, we just need to roll with it and cut back just like everyone else is doing,” he said.
After several items were discussed openly, Free Lance editor Kollin Kosmicki announced on the record that the meeting was a “clear violation” of the Brown Act.
“Citizens in a community have the right to know what is going to be discussed at a meeting to a certain level of specificity,” he told the council members.
Council members and Julian supported the open format of the meeting, because they said there were no issues presented that are on the city council’s agenda and that no action was taken.
“There is nothing here that is on any agenda pending before the city council,” Julian said.
He went on: “Mind your own business.”
He added that the city has allowed town hall meetings in the municipal code for years.
“If you have an issue with it, take it up with the city attorney,” he said Saturday.
Boch during the meeting said that if someone has a problem they “can come in here and arrest us all.”
“That’s the problem right there – everything’s a negative; nothing is positive,” Boch said. “Oh, he is breaking the law. All we want to hear from these people is what they are concerned about.”
Moore said he wasn’t getting paid a dime to be there.
“My daughter had a softball game today, and I gave up that to come here to get input from the city for the residents that don’t show up,” he said. “You can quote that.”
Look back for video from the meeting.
Excerpt from City Attorney George Thatcher’s statement to the Free Lance
“Clearly, there was no intention on anyone’s part to violate the Act or to deprive the public of any information to which the public is entitled per the Brown Act. Thank you for bringing the matter to the City’s attention. It is clearly an isolated incident, as City staff is well aware of, and consistently complies with, Brown Act notice and posting requirements.”
Penalties for violations
Penalties and remedies for violating the Brown Act include criminal misdemeanor penalties for members of the violating board. Charges are filed when a member attends a meeting where a violation occurred and “where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled,” according to the act. Civil remedies include an injunction on the board to stop violations or to prevent violations. Also all actions can be voided.
Excerpts from Brown Act
” The Ralph M. Brown Act governs meetings conducted by local legislative bodies, such as boards of supervisors, city councils and school boards. The Act represents the Legislature’s determination of how the balance should be struck between public access to meetings of multi-member public bodies on the one hand and the need for confidential candor, debate, and information gathering on the other. … As the courts have stated, the purpose of the Brown Act is to facilitate public participation in local government decisions and to curb misuse of the democratic process by secret legislation by public bodies”
“The Brown Act provides for three different types of meetings. Regular meetings occur at a time and location generally set by ordinance, resolution, or by-laws. At least 72 hours prior to a regular meeting, an agenda must be posted which contains a brief general description of each item to be transacted or discussed at the meeting. Special meetings may be called at any time but notice must be received at least 24 hours prior to the meeting by all members of the body and by all media outlets that have requested notice in writing. Emergency meetings, which are extraordinarily rare, may be called upon one-hour notice to media outlets that have requested notice in writing.”