San Juan Bautista Mayor Chris Martorana this week tried and failed to remove city Planning Commission Chairman John Hopper from the planning body without cause.
In its public discussion of the mayor’s proposal at a special meeting of the San Juan Bautista City Council, the council members inadvertently revealed a possible violation of the Ralph Brown Act, which prevents secret or informal meetings of members of elected bodies.
Near the end of the Nov. 8 meeting, Martorana made a motion to remove Hopper without cause, which is allowable under city code, as soon as the item came before the council at the end of the meeting. The item was originally earlier on the agenda, but Martorana moved it to the end of the meeting, anticipating a lengthy debate.
“Why are you doing it?” asked Councilman John Freeman. “Specifically to you, mayor. I’m really curious: Why?”
City Attorney Deborah Mall interceded to advise that the night’s action was without cause. She added the council could vote to remove Hopper, because planning commission members serve at the pleasure of the council.
Freeman wasn’t having it, and spoke of a meeting he had with Vice Mayor Jim West a couple weeks before Wednesday night’s special meeting.
“I went over to a certain councilman’s house, Councilman West,” Freeman said. “We talked for a while and he stated he had talked to another city council member. He didn’t say who, but it doesn’t matter. Brown Act violation right there.”
The violation Freeman referred to is what is known as a serialized meeting, in which a string of meetings, emails or phone calls constitutes a group meeting. The Brown Act, which promotes government transparency in California, prohibits members of public bodies from engaging in communication among themselves outside of a public meeting that leads to a concurrence for an action to be taken.
West responded to Freeman by saying there was no conversation, but later changed his answer and said he didn’t remember a discussion taking place.
Residents spoke in support of Hopper and chastised the council during public comment.
“Not giving us a reason why is an easy way out for you all,” resident Elia Salinas said. “Your constituents deserve to know why you’re doing this.”
Hopper spoke during public comment as well and explained his side of things.
“I had a meeting with one of our city council members and he said to me that because I am anti-growth and because of the position and stances that I take, this was an issue and they were going to try to get other people on the planning commission that were more favorable towards growth,” Hopper said. “One of those was appointed tonight.”
Earlier in the evening, the San Juan Bautista City Council accepted the resignation of Andy Moore from the planning commission. Councilman Tony Boch appointed David Medeiros to fill the vacancy.
“When this came to me, unfortunately as was discussed with the Brown Act, numerous council members talked to me in violation of the Brown Act,” Hopper said.
City Attorney Mall attempted to get the ball rolling again on the vote that the mayor had called, but was steamrolled when Freeman threatened to sue under the Brown Act.
Martorana then called for a five-minute recess to confer with Mall, much to the displeasure of the audience. Mall explained the recess in an email to the Free Lance.
“The principal job of the City Attorney is to keep the city out of legal trouble,” Mall wrote in an email. “I can meet with the mayor, as necessary, to advise on the legal process. This includes meeting with the mayor during a recess of the meeting.”
Martorana called for a roll call vote on the matter after the short recess. Boch and West voted in favor of firing Hopper without cause. Councilman Dan DeVries, Freeman and Martorana voted against. The mayor asked that an item be placed on a future agenda addressing the removal of Hopper with a cause that he exceed his authority. No date was set.
Interim City Manager Tewes confirmed by email Thursday that he didn’t have an expected date as to when the item could come before the council.
Hopper spoke with the Free Lance after Wednesday night’s special meeting. He’s lived in San Juan Bautista for just over 25 years and moved to the city after a career in law enforcement. He also served on the planning commission for six years in a separate term before going to serve on the city council for eight years.
He addressed why he thought council members attempted to remove him.
“They believe that my leadership style conflicts with the matter in which they believe I should conduct myself,” Hopper said. “A city council member said to me he felt that I was acting like it was my planning commission. That my anti-growth position shouldn’t be influencing the entire planning commission and driving decisions. That’s the root cause issue I believe of why this is happening.”
Hopper stressed he wasn’t anti-growth, but rather an advocate of well-planned growth that brings value to the city.
“Many of these projects, these housing projects, weren’t well planned and in my opinion the city took shortcuts,” Hopper said. “There were no environmental impact studies done.”
Hopper referred to recent housing developments sprouting up around town like Copperleaf and Rancho Vista, which have drawn public controversy.
Former City Manager Roger Grimsley abruptly resigned in August after six years as the city’s top staff member after it came to light that he had approved significant alterations to a section of the Rancho Vista housing development currently under construction, without requiring the developer to seek approval from elected city representatives. Grimsley also acted as the city’s engineer.
Council members filled Grimsley’s post with Tewes in September. Tewes is working to find a permanent replacement.
Despite construction, the city is unable to issue building permits at this point in time due to a lack of redundancy in the city’s water and sewer system.
Hopper shared his thoughts on the possibility of if another attempt to remove him came back at a future agenda.
“I will be much better prepared to both legally and factually defend myself,” Hopper said. “I didn’t even know when I went to the meeting that night if I would get up and say anything. What I did know is that I wanted to make sure people knew that, whether I said anything or not, I’m the same caring individual that I’ve been my entire political career.”
If the San Juan Bautista City Council were to attempt to remove Hopper again, they wouldn’t be able to do so without cause.
“If the City Council wants to remove Mr. Hopper, for cause, it would then give Mr. Hopper the reason or reasons and the rules of due process would allow him the opportunity to clear his name at a public hearing,” Mall said. “The City Council would have to provide evidence to support its case.”
Hopper said he’ll still continue to advocate and work for the people of San Juan Bautista.
“I intend on continuing to show up and do my job at the planning commission unless I’m removed. If I am removed, I’m going to continue to stay involved in some capacity. I’m not sure what the means, if I’d run for city council or become a community watchdog. But I’m not going to let these circumstances suppress me from doing the right things.”