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California's Open Meeting Law: The Ralph M. Brown Act

The Ralph M. Brown Act is California's open meeting law. The law's intent is that the actions of public commissions, boards and councils in California be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. (Government Code section 54950.) For the text of the Brown Act, see this webpage.

For "Open and Public IV: A Guide to the Ralph M. Brown Act", see the following PDF.

For a comprehensive analysis of the Brown Act, see the following webpage.

For an overview of the Brown Act, see the following webpage.

For another overview of the Brown Act, see the following webpage.

For articles from the Los Angeles Times regarding the Ralph M. Brown Act, see the following articles.

For an article regarding alleged Brown Act violations regarding the Town of Apple Valley, see the following article.

For an article regarding alleged Brown Act violations regarding the City of Covina's redevelopment agency, see the following article.

For an article regarding a fee order in a Brown Act lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Supervisors, see the following article.

For the response of then La Habra Height's City Attorney regarding alleged Brown Act violations, click here.



For additional Brown Act articles, see below

Report says Central Basin Municipal Water District violated Brown Act when it set up $2.7 million ‘slush fund’

By Mike Sprague, Whittier Daily News

COMMERCE – Central Basin Municipal Water District violated California’s open-meeting law when its board approved a $2.7 million slush fund, said Craig Engle, a partner with Arent Fox, that has been investigating the expenditure.

The fund was used to funnel cash to relatives, political allies and friends, including former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, D-Montebello, charged in a federal criminal case with money laundering. Additionally it was used to pay for a report on a secret water storage program.

In his letter, Engle wrote that a vote on June 28, 2010 to appropriate the money should have been done in public session.

However, it is unlikely the district or board members will be prosecuted, Engle said.

“Central Basin should have had that discussion in open session but Central Basin probably would have no further action taken against them because the directors were acting under the advice of their counsel,” he said.

In addition, Engle said since the vote was taken four years ago, it falls outside the statute of limitations.

Action against the district also is unlikely because two directors who approved the move are no longer on the board and the district voluntarily cooperated to resolve the matter, Engle noted.

Engle, whose firm has been paid $500,000 by the district, told the board a full report should be complete in 30 days.

Art Aguilar, who was general manager when the $2.7 million was appropriated, said Doug Wance, the district’s attorney at the time, had advised the board it was legal to create the slush fund.

“He advised the board because it was pending litigation it was proper to do this in closed session,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar said that every storage plan, which had been proposed in the past, ended up in court. That was the pending litigation Wance was referring to, Aguilar added.

Wance didn’t return a phone call made Monday seeking comment.

The report was one of many items on the agenda that saw the board reject a warrant list that included a $16,000 payment to a woman injured in a 2010 car accident that was caused by Chacon.

General Manager Tony Perez, who had approved the payment, said after the meeting the money already had been paid. The warrant list is just a report of the month’s spending, Perez said.

Gil Aguirre, a San Gabriel Valley open-government activist, said how Central Basin handles its warrant list is normal.

“What normally happens is the chief administrative of the district is in charge of paying the bills every month,” Aguirre said.

“Then, at the end of the month there’s a public meeting where a warrant list is put out,” Aguirre said. “The problem they have is they gave Perez the authority to write checks up to a certain dollar. I don’t think there’s any way to unravel that.”

Chacon and board President Phil Hawkins voted in favor of approving the warrant list while Directors Robert Apodaca and Leticia Vasquez voted no.

Director James Roybal was absent. He didn’t return two phone calls to explain his absence.

Perez said he paid the money as part of an effort to settle all the district’s claims.

“I felt these claims were a distraction,” he said.

But Vasquez said the money shouldn’t have been paid because it was a personal lawsuit.

“There’s nothing in the water and administrative codes that gives you the authority to pay personal judgements against members of the board,” she said.

In addition, the district’s insurance carrier refused to pay it, she said.

Perez disagreed.

“Elected officials do not work an eight-hour day,” he said. “They respond to their electorates. I understand Director Chacon was acting in response to a call from one of his constituents.”

The board also received a report about the potential loss of the district’s insurance.

Richard Aragon, the district’s finance director, said Central Basin has cost its insurance carrier about $328,000 during the last five years.

Aragon said that’s the difference between money paid out for liability and workers compensation claims and premiums paid by the district.

Walter Sells, executive director for the Joint Powers Authority of Association of California Water Agencies, has recommended his agency cancel Central Basin’s insurance because of high claims. His recommendation will be considered Wednesday by the JPIA’s executive committee.

Aragon said he will be looking at all options to make sure Central Basin has insurance.

“We have no reason to believe there’s no hope so to speak,” said Aragon. “It’ll be a challenge and take work but we think it’s definitely possible.”

Whittier Daily News, March 24, 2014


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L.A. County District Attorney’s Office accuses La Habra Heights of breaking state open-meeting law

By Mike Sprague

LA HABRA HEIGHTS -- The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has accused the city of breaking the state’s open-meeting law twice in the last six months.

In letters sent to the city, the Planning Commission is accused of not allowing residents to speak at an Aug. 27 meeting and the City Council is alleged to have illegally engaged in what’s called a “serial meeting” in which individually they approved spending, instead doing it at a public meeting.

The District Attorney’s Office isn’t taking any further action than sending a letter in both cases.

Bjorn Dodd, deputy district attorney who sent both letters, said his office in most cases can do no more than send a warning.

“That’s what’s available as a remedy,” Dodd said. “You can only prosecute for certain misdemeanors and these violations didn’t amount to a misdemeanor.”

All other remedies would consist of having a judge tell a city not to do (the wrongful act) again and that’s only for multiple violations of the same issue, Dodd said. That’s not the case here, he added.

City Manager Shauna Clark complained that Dodd hadn’t contacted the city about the complaints to get its side.

“Why didn’t the DA interview us?” Clark asked. “Why didn’t they hear our side of the story?”

Dodd responded that he doesn’t need the city’s input.

“We do our own investigation,” he said. “If it’s a violation, we don’t need an explanation.”

Clark said the accusation of the “serial meeting” was false.

She said that she approved the spending for a surveillance system at City Hall under her spending authority as city manager and also posted the item, “The Facts,” on the city web site — again without City Council approval.

“It’s the staff who posts the website,” she said.

But in his letter, Dodd questioned whether the council approval was given.

“In an email dated May 15, 2013, addressed as “Dear Friends,” the city manager wrote that the City Council had authorized staff to create the new website section,” Dodd stated.

“However, we found no record of this item of business being posted on a previous meeting agenda or being discussed by the City Council at a previous public meeting,” he stated. “Therefore, it appears that the decision was the product of improper “serial communications” outside of the public view.”

Dodd’s complaint about the Oct. 27 Planning Commission stated that resident Stephen Blagden wasn’t allowed to speak on the minutes and the community development report, although it’s possible the commission didn’t realize he had submitted a card.

The commission also illegally cut off resident Williams Phelps who was talking about a proposal to allow the city to approve development agreements by saying “project review” had been a problem” for La Habra Heights, Dodd stated in his letter.

A third resident, Michelle Kurtz was cut off speaking when she asserted that city personnel had a vendetta against members of the Morgan family who had previously challenged particular actions taken by the city, Dodd stated.

“The public right to address the commission includes the right to criticize the Commission or other city personnel,” Dodd stated.

Blagden, who was among several people filing the complaints, said he’s happy the District Attorney’s Office sent the letters.

“I’m glad they responded,” Blagden said. “They kind of put the city on notice.”

Whittier Daily News, November 30, 2013

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Mayor resigns amid turmoil over reform in Vernon

Hilario 'Larry' Gonzales quits after criticism that the council acted improperly in promoting the interim city attorney without placing the matter on the meeting agenda

By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

Vernon's top elected official abruptly resigned this week amid growing tensions over whether council members in the troubled city are serious about promised reforms.

Mayor Hilario "Larry" Gonzales, who has served on the City Council for nearly 40 years, submitted his resignation Monday after the council was criticized for promoting Vernon's interim city attorney, Michael Montgomery, without placing the action on a meeting agenda. Montgomery has resigned as well.

Their departures come at a key moment in Vernon as residents will vote this month on a series of reform initiatives that could significantly change the city's government and limit the authority of its council members.

The city, which has an estimated 1,800 businesses but only 112 residents, has been plagued by corruption scandals in recent years and was nearly disincorporated by the state Legislature this summer. A coalition of city leaders, business and labor groups helped defeat the legislation and has vowed to enact major reforms.

But over the last few weeks, concerns have emerged within Vernon that some of the city's elected officials may be resistant to the changes.

Tempers flared after the Oct. 18 council meeting, when Gonzales and two other council members voted to promote Montgomery.

The move produced a public rebuke from two of the city's most prominent allies: former state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, who is working as Vernon's ethics advisor, and state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), who led a defense of the city in Sacramento. Vernon's Chamber of Commerce, which has become increasingly active in city politics, also assailed the move.

"It shows us that some of Vernon's council appear unable to learn from past mistakes," Jim Andreoli, a local businessman, said to the council at its meeting this week. "Waver from your commitment to reform, and you will lose our support. You will be alone."

Van de Kamp said he was pleased with the city's progress overall, but added that there was also "push back" from the council members against some of the proposed reforms, including a suggested pay cut to $25,000 a year.

The council members, who work part time, are paid annual salaries of about $56,000. They have also signed off on a series of controversial decisions in recent years, including annual salary payments of more than $500,000 for several city administrators.

"This has been a difficult process for them," Van de Kamp said. "They've been here a long time and the economics have been good for them.… Some of the changes are troubling."

Van de Kamp also said he had noticed tension between Montgomery and City Administrator Mark Whitworth over the direction of the city, but declined to discuss specific issues.

Montgomery, a former state chairman of the Republican Party, was hired by Vernon late last year.

In interviews this week Montgomery downplayed talk of a disagreement between himself and other Vernon administrators, saying he chose to resign because of negative media attention.

He also said that Gonzales' resignation was motivated by the fact that the mayor will probably earn more from his pension than he would under the proposed pay cut. Montgomery expects two other longtime council members, William Davis and William McCormick, to retire soon for the same reason.

"The city is going to be fine," Montgomery said in an interview. "It's got a strong political support now, and great union support and the manufacturers are behind it."

Gonzales could not be reached for comment. He and other Vernon council members have declined repeated interview requests from The Times over the last year.

Marisa Olguin, president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, said her organization had heard "rumors and feedback" that some of the council members were opposed to the initiatives. She and others in the Vernon business community have expressed fears that if the city rejects the reforms, Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) could reintroduce his disincorporation bill, AB 46, next year.

There are 71 registered voters in the 5.2-square-mile city, according to a city spokesman. Most live in homes and apartments owned by City Hall.

Among the initiatives on the ballot are term limits for the City Council, restrictions on lawmakers' compensation and requirements that they conduct a competitive bidding process for city service contracts. Two separate votes will be held, the first Nov. 8 and a second Nov. 22.

The council repealed its decision to promote Montgomery on Tuesday and instructed the city administrator to conduct a comprehensive search process. During the meeting, Davis, one of the council members who opposed Montgomery's promotion, delivered an emotional speech asking residents to support the reforms.

"This month of November is the most important month in the history of the city," Davis said. "I beg all of you residents… don't let John Pérez get back to the city of Vernon on his AB 46."

Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2011

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D.A. investigates Brown Act violations

Dozens of L.A. County agencies have been warned that they must conduct the public's business in open meetings

By Jack Leonard

Dozens of local government agencies across Los Angeles County have silenced critics at public meetings, held secret conferences to hash out important business or taken other actions that violated the state's open meetings law, according to a Times review of the district attorney's records.

Responding to complaints from the public, prosecutors have sent more than 50 letters since 2001 warning government officials that they acted illegally. District attorney's officials frequently threatened civil court action or criminal charges if the violations continued.

Though no one has been prosecuted, some agencies have been required to publicly reverse decisions made in secret. Several elected bodies, including the city councils of El Segundo and, more recently, Lancaster, have received repeated warnings to clean up their act.

Among the actions prosecutors have faulted are the shutting off of a critic's microphone during a meeting and the hiring of a "facilitator" to poll council members about an issue so that they would not have to formally meet on it.

Some city attorneys say they feel they have been unfairly treated like criminals and complain that prosecutors sometimes see violations where none exist. But activists for open government say the warnings help improve compliance and will show that too many local agencies embrace a culture of secrecy.

"It's arrogance and a feeling that they know best and they can do whatever they want," said Richard McKee, an advocate for open government who has filed more than a dozen lawsuits against government agencies. The suits allege violations of the state's open meetings law.

Agencies that act in secret deprive the public of the opportunity to weigh in on important issues, such as development proposals and officials' salaries. Prosecutors say it also prevents the sort of scrutiny that deters officials from benefiting themselves or their friends and supporters at public expense.

For more than 50 years, California's open meetings law, the Brown Act, has required members of city councils, school boards and a host of other local government agencies to conduct business in public. Every state gives the public the right to attend government meetings and limits what officials can decide in secret, experts said. But California's law goes further than some, giving the public the right to speak at agency meetings, they added.

Introduced by the late Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, a Modesto Democrat, the legislation, enacted in 1953, was inspired by a 10-part series written by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mike Harris that exposed many local agencies making decisions in secret. Brown then led a legislative committee investigation that confirmed the practice.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's warning letters offer a unique window into local compliance with the state's open meetings law. Activists for open government said few prosecutors, if any, are as thorough or consistent as L.A. County's in following up on complaints from the public about secrecy or censorship.

Juli Potter, an El Segundo resident, was addressing her City Council in 2003 when she was interrupted as she began to question why then-Mayor Mike Gordon was not spending his campaign funds on events in the city.

Gordon, who was running for a seat on the state Assembly, accused Potter of campaigning and told her to stop, according to district attorney's records.

"We'll take you out every time," he warned her.

But Potter continued. Gordon interrupted her again.

"We're done," he finally told her. "Microphone's off."

A videotape of the meeting showed a uniformed officer escorting Potter out of the council chamber, according to district attorney's records.

Susan Chasworth, a Los Angeles County prosecutor, sent a letter telling the council that state law protects the public from censorship of criticism during meetings.

"El Segundo public officials are servants of the people -- all of the people -- whether they hold conflicting opinions or not," Chasworth wrote.

The prosecutor's scolding drew cheers from some regulars at the council's meetings. But Mark Hensley, El Segundo's city attorney, said he believed the district attorney's office was wrong.

The law, he said, protects only comments involving issues that the council has authority over. That would not include how a state Assembly candidate spends his campaign cash, Hensley said. He faulted prosecutors for sometimes reacting too quickly to complaints, adding that they could fix minor problems with a phone call.

"They send that letter and . . . it means they're going to embarrass you," Hensley said. "You feel like they're treating you like a criminal."

Los Angeles County prosecutors began scrutinizing complaints about Brown Act violations soon after Steve Cooley took office as district attorney in December 2000.

Within a month, prosecutors concluded that the Los Angeles Unified School District's board had violated the law by voting in secret to allow the superintendent to explore whether to sell or finish construction of the controversial Belmont Learning Complex. The board's attorneys denied wrongdoing. But the board later rescinded the vote, marking a victory for the district attorney's office.

"One of the best ways to deter public corruption is to have transparency in government," Cooley said recently. "That injects honesty."

Some elected officials said they support open government but believe the law sometimes imposes limits that stifle free discussion among officials.

"They're so afraid of stepping on the Brown Act that no one talks to each other," said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris.

Last year, prosecutors faulted Parris and two other council members for attending a barbecue at the newly elected mayor's home, where they hobnobbed with prospective city commissioners. The law prohibits a majority of a government body from meeting privately to discuss issues within its jurisdiction.

Parris said no city business was discussed and called the event "purely social." But the district attorney's office disagreed and described the event as an illegal meeting. A prosecutor noted in a letter to council members that the city had been warned five months earlier, before Parris was elected to the council as mayor, that it had already violated the law.

At that time, a prosecutor complained that the council appeared to have hired a "facilitator" to meet with each member and develop a plan to remove the city manager. The law prohibits public officials from using intermediaries to help a majority come to an agreement outside of public view.

Parris said he disagreed with the findings about his barbecue but has sought to make the city as open as possible.

"Maybe it's because my first action was to have a barbecue and I got my hand slapped, I'm hypersensitive to it," Parris said. "I certainly don't fault the D.A."

Some complainants, however, fault the district attorney for not doing more. Genevieve Clavreul, a nurse and regular critic of the Board of Supervisors, said some elected officials deserve prosecution for violating the Brown Act.

"I'm glad there has been progress, but I don't think they are aggressive enough," she said.

But criminal charges are nearly impossible to bring, said Terry Francke, a lawyer and author of a guide to the state's open meetings law. Prosecutors must show that an official intentionally violated the law, a difficult standard to meet in court, he said.

"The idea of a letter, firing a shot across the offender's bow, is a very good one," Francke said.

From her office on the seventh floor of the downtown Hall of Records, Jennifer Lentz Snyder pores over meeting agendas, watches videos and reviews other documents to investigate complaints. Snyder, a 20-year veteran prosecutor who has tried more than two dozen gang murders, receives roughly 40 complaints a year.

The number of complaints involving serious violations has decreased in recent years, she said. Snyder attributed the change to the office's written legal warnings -- or "knock-it-off letters," as she calls them -- which she said educate public officials about the law. The goal, she said, is compliance.

"I don't think that most of these people go out there trying to subvert the law," said Snyder, the assistant head of the office's Public Integrity Division. "But the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Among recent warnings was one Snyder sent to the city of Avalon. The council, she said, violated the law by creating a citizens' advisory board that was not complying with the Brown Act. In response, the council disbanded the board.

In other cases, Snyder has raised the threat of legal action.

In August, Walnut City Council members held a meeting behind closed doors during which Mayor Joaquin Lim was said to have led a council discussion and polled his colleagues about opposing construction of an NFL stadium in the neighboring city of Industry.

Lim said the council did nothing wrong and heeded the advice of the city's attorney during the meeting.

But in her letter to the council in September, Snyder said she was prepared to take agencies to court if they flout the law.

"Such closed door 'secret meetings,' " she wrote, "are precisely the kind of backdoor politics that the Brown Act prohibits."

Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2009
See www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-govtsecrecy10-2009apr10,0,2816998.story

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Industry City Council accused of Brown Act violation in NFL stadium approval

By Amanda Baumfeld, Staff Writer

INDUSTRY - A citizen's group believes the City Council violated the state's public meeting laws when it approved a supplemental environmental report on a proposed NFL stadium.

The council at a Feb. 26 meeting approved the environmental report of 600 acres of land near the intersection of the 57 and 60 freeways. Billionaire developer Ed Roski Jr., who owns Majestic Realty, has plans to build an $800 million stadium on the land.

"We want the problem cured," said Cleve Robert Ferguson, an attorney representing the citizen's group. "They (the city) had a public hearing, but they didn't tell anyone about it."

The Concerned Citizens of Diamond Bar and Walnut said Industry violated the Brown Act because it failed to give proper notice about a public hearing on the item, according to a notice to cure lawsuit filed May 11.

The Ralph M. Brown Act is a series of laws that govern how public meetings must be conducted.

Industry attorney Don Davis said the claim is "meritless" and "frivolous."

"They (the citizen's group) are confusing public comment and public hearing," Davis said. "There was nothing improper; it makes no sense that they are even pursuing it."

A public hearing was never held but the council heard public comments, according to Davis.

The approval of the environmental report is handled under California Environmental Quality Act regulations and there is no public hearing required, Davis said.

Two other items were on the agenda that day that required public hearings, including a land-use change.

The agenda for the meeting was posted about five days before the meeting, Davis said. The Brown Act requires at least a 72-hour notice of public meetings.

"The world was on notice," Davis said. "Everybody knew it was on the agenda."

Whittier Daily News, May 21, 2009
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Council votes to report member

by Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer

ROSEMEAD - A councilman could be ousted from office if a grand jury finds that he was violating the state's open-meeting laws, experts said Wednesday.

The City Council voted 3-1-1 Tuesday to report Gary Taylor to the Los Angeles County grand jury for releasing confidential information about sexual harassment allegations against Councilman John Nunez.

Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, a nonprofit, open-government organization, said if Taylor is found guilty of violating the Ralph M. Brown Act, he could lose his seat.

"It is a little like a local impeachment," Francke said.

The Brown Act is the state's open-meeting law.

Nunez joined Mayor John Tran and City Councilwoman Polly Low in voting to send the case to the grand jury. City Councilwoman Margaret Clark voted against the move. Taylor abstained.

Council members allege Taylor leaked private information to the public during repeated verbal and written requests for an investigative sexual harassment report. The report was presented during a closed-door meeting in April.

"I'd like to refer Gary Taylor to the grand jury for criminal prosecution for violating the Brown Act," Low said.

The confidential report included comments from staff members who were interviewed by a private investigator hired after a finance employee accused Nunez of sexual harassment. Nunez denies the claim.

City Attorney Bonifacio Garcia said releasing such confidential information is a violation of the Brown Act and could be punished as a misdemeanor.

Garcia said the city will file a complaint with both the District Attorney's Office and the grand jury.

Deputy District Attorney Dave Demerjian, head of the public integrity division, said that while the City Council could report Taylor to the grand jury, Taylor can't be criminally prosecuted.

"Releasing confidential information is not a crime," said Demerjian, who added he has not received a complaint from Rosemead against Taylor.

According the Brown Act, a person may not disclose information presented and discussed during a closed-session meeting. Punishments for violating the prohibition include injunctive relief, disciplinary action or referral to the county grand jury.

The council's action Tuesday satisfies requests by Taylor, who previously challenged the council to report him the grand jury with the hope that information released in the investigative report would be made public.

"You have jeopardized all the employees of Rosemead," Taylor said on Tuesday. "The truth is going to come out now or later."

Taylor thanked the council for its decision.

"Thank you, Mrs. Low," Taylor said. "The grand jury is on its way."

Francke said if the case goes forward, a prosecutor would have to lay out what was reported during closed session and what was disclosed by Taylor.

"Ultimately, if this were to be tried, they would have to be very specific," Francke said, "and have to disclose what was learned in closed session."

During open meetings in recent months, Taylor alleged that an investigator, Tess Elconin, reported during a closed-session meeting that the city employees were exposed to a hostile work environment and stayed silent for fear of being fired.

In an Oct. 2 letter to the City Council, Taylor requested that the council authorize Elconin to complete the report.

"If the City Council agrees to completing the report it will protect your integrity and honesty," he wrote.

Low, who made the motion to recommend Taylor to the grand jury, said she was frustrated and disappointed with his repeated violations of the law.

"We had to put a stop to this," Low said after the meeting Tuesday night.

Tran admonished Taylor Tuesday night.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," Tran said. "You broke the law and compromised the taxpayers."

City Manager Oliver Chi said he expects the complaints to be filed by the end of the next week.

Pasadena Star News, October 11, 2007
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City waits for AG opinion on closed meeting

By Dan Abendschein, Staff Writer

COVINA - The district attorney's office asked the state Attorney General's office for an opinion on whether the city was allowed to make a redevelopment loan in closed session.

The city and DA differ in their interpretations of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs how public meetings are conducted.

The DA's Public Integrity Division dropped an open-meeting violation case against Covina last week with the understanding that the Attorney General would give a clear interpretation of the law.

The case was filed in response to a complaint from Bob Low, a former Covina mayor and frequent council critic.

The complaint centered around a December 2005 City Council meeting where the council went into closed session and agreed to issue a $1.75 million redevelopment loan to a local business.

Both the DA and city agreed the matter was best left to state authorities.

"This is an equitable and economic solution that will save taxpayers the money it would cost to try this case," said Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Snyder.

Snyder said that her office's aim was not to punish Covina, but to establish whether decisions about redevelopment loans can be held in private.

"The ultimate outcome is what we want: either a decision that vindicates us, or clear reasons why our interpretation is off," Snyder said. "We're confident our interpretation is solid."

Paul Phillips, Covina city manager, said the dismissal of the complaint was an exoneration of the city. "I think it proves we were clearly following the law as we understood it," Phillips said.

The dismissal ensures that the city will not face any penalty, no matter what opinion the Attorney General's office issues, Snyder said. She added that the opinion will likely not come out of the office for at least six months.

Covina's attorneys had maintained that there were entitled to meet in closed-session under a Brown Act exemption for real-estate price negotiations.

But Snyder argued that the 2005 loan to Bert's Mega Mall, a motorcycle and watercraft business on Azusa Avenue, did not involve the "purchase, sale, exchange, or lease of real property," which are the activities the Brown Act allows for closed-session real-estate negotiations.

Snyder noted the city rescinded the action and re-made the loan in open-session, which was a factor in the office's reasoning in dropping the case.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, December 4, 2007


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City wrong to go after blog

OUR VIEW: Request for Google to terminate the Internet service is hypocritical and an affront to concept of free speech.

It turns out the city of Claremont wanted nothing less than the death penalty for the Claremont Insider blog after it posted scans of two city administrators' pay stubs, along with information about other city employee's pay and benefits amounts.

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, claiming that the information was obtained and posted illegally, demanded in a letter that Google not only remove the pay stub postings, but also "terminate the hosting service for this blog to prevent future violations."

The blog should be eliminated because of a claimed illegal act? That's pretty harsh.

After all, Claremont has on some occasions in recent years violated the Brown Act, the series of state laws that require government to be open and accountable to the governed. We consider breaking the Brown Act laws a very serious illegality because the purpose of the laws is to give the governed full rights to observe the workings of its elected government.

And yet, while we have admonished Claremont and other cities in no uncertain terms about Brown Act lawbreaking, we have never called for the Claremont council to be "terminated." We would never say that the City Council members should be turned out of office, or that city government should be disbanded, or that the city itself should be unincorporated, over an isolated breaking of Brown Act laws - even though we consider it a much more serious offense than posting a public employee's pay stub.

Yes, we're being a bit silly here, but the point is serious.

Mayor Peter Yao said the demand to remove the offending posts and the demand to terminate the blog were "one and the same," but that's not the case at all. The blog may be obnoxious to city leaders, but that pesky First Amendment gives the blog the right to free speech, especially political speech. One episode of posting information, even if is privileged as the city claims, should not override the blog's free-speech right. (If the blog were to do illegal things over and over, that might be a different story.)

Besides, it's not at all clear that the offending posts were illegal, or obtained illegally, or even consisted of privileged information. The California Supreme Court ruled in August that pay records for public employees are a matter of public record.

The pay stubs that were posted itemized dollar amounts for earnings, benefits, leave earnings and deductions. It did not reveal private information such as Social Security number, date of birth, home address or bank account numbers. The post did include information about types of medical deductions that we would not reveal; Carvalho says that information is privileged, some open-governments say it's not, some are unsure.

The cases are stronger, in our opinion, that Claremont's council violated the Brown Act:

In June, went it met in closed session to discuss negotiations between two private parties concerning the city's DoubleTree Hotel.

In January 2005, when it met in closed session to discuss a councilwoman's actions and how to respond to them.

Twice in early 2003, when a councilwoman participated in a committee meeting of a council subcommittee consisting of two councilmen, turning it into an unagendized council meeting; and when a councilman contacted his colleagues one by one to ask for another term as mayor, constituting an unlawful serial council meeting.

Even so, we support the city's right to exist.

City government has the right and duty to argue to protect employee information it considers privileged. But trying to shut down an information source based on one questionable transgression is beyond the pale.

Claremont prides itself on being a city that values civic discourse. Let's hope it continues to deserve that reputation.

Disagree? We'd like to hear from you. Write us at letters@dailybulletin.com.

Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, October 8, 2007


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City's attorney fees pile up in firing case

Rose Albano-Risso, City Editor

LATHROP - Attorneys' fees continue to rise in the ongoing Lathrop Matt Browne wrongful termination case.

What was originally scheduled as a three-day hearing is now stretching to eight days, and maybe more.

Three days of hearing were held Wednesday to Friday, Sept. 10-12, last week at City Hall.

However, those three days were not enough to get through all the witnesses before the hearing officer, Lathrop public information officer Mike Esau said on Monday.

"They will start again on Oct. 7," he said, and will continue through Oct. 8, 16, 20 and 21.

"Also, they may conduct a hearing on Oct. 15 but they are not sure about that yet. And they are prepared to add additional days (of hearing) if needed," said Esau.

The city is paying for both its contracted legal counsel, Colantuono and Levin law offices of Los Angeles, and for the legal services of hearing officer Douglas Barton of San Francisco. Esau was unable to give an exact figure for Lathrop's contract with Colantuono and Levin which also performs other legal work for the city besides the Browne case load. However, Esau said that since January, the city has paid Colantuono and Levin $80,766.60 "for everything they've done" including work they have performed for the Browne case.

Esau explained that Colantuono and Levin charge an hourly rate but bill the city on a monthly basis.

Esau was unable to get the figures being paid to the hearing officer as of press time Monday.

Former mayor Bennie Gatto, one of 13 witnesses for Browne, said he was supposed to appear on Friday but was informed the day before not to show up because they were running behind in the hearing. The city has subpoenaed five witnesses to its case against Browne, three of those were for documents only. One of the people whom the city has subpoenaed to testify is Joe's Travel Plaza and Best Western hotel owner Dalwinder Dhoot who is also a witness for Browne.

Among those lined up by Browne's lawyer, Ellen Mendelson, to appear as witnesses for her client include Interim Lathrop-Manteca Fire Chief Fred Manding, former four-term Lathrop mayor Steve McKee, former Lathrop Community Development Director John Beckman, Planning Commissioner Dan Mac Neilage, former city senior planner Deanna Walsh, and Lathrop Industrial Park developer Tim Murphy. Also included in this list are current city employees Fred Manuel and John Ennis, both building inspectors who worked with Browne who was the Chief Building Officials at the time of his firing, and Yolanda Salcedo. Another former city employee, Shannon Sandoval, was subpoenaed by both the city and Browne.

The hearing, which was originally set in July, was postponed twice before it started last week.

No time frame for hearing officer's report to council

Following the fact-finding hearing, the hearing officer will submit his recommendation to the City Council which will then take it into consideration whether the former chief building official and 17-year employee of the city was wrongfully terminated.

"There's no prescribed time frame for the hearing officer to submit his conclusions to the city," said Esau on Monday.

"He will submit his conclusion in writing in reasonable time but there is no prescribed time limit," he said.

City accused of violating the Brown Act


Despite repeated request by Browne to open what his attorney has called "a name-clearing hearing" to the public and the news media, City Hall officials have denied the request citing the privacy of the people involved. However, the Bulletin has learned that none of the 13 witnesses for Brown was against appearing at a public hearing. Phone calls to the hearing officer asking for the reasons why the procedure is being held behind closed doors were not returned.

Mendelson has consistently maintained that her client has been deprived of his rights and that the city has is in violation of the Brown Act by not opening the hearing to the public. She also said that the city did not follow standard "progressive hearing" protocol as mandated by law in her client's administrative leave and subsequent termination.

"The city has disciplinary rules and none of that has been followed," Mendelson insisted.

Browne was placed on administrative leave with pay from July of last year until he was terminated in February of this year. He testified in June before a state EDD (Employment Development Department) administrative law judge that he was never given the due process of verbal or written warning prior to being put on administrative leave or before he was terminated. The hearing was his appeal of the city's denial of his application for unemployment benefits. Present at the hearing representing the city were City Manager Yvonne Quiring, Community Development Director Marilyn Ponton who was Browne's direct supervisor, and Colantuono, the city's contracted counsel.

That EDD hearing was not barred from the public or the news media, with the Manteca Bulletin as the only member of the press present at the hearing in Stockton.

After six weeks of deliberation, Administrative Law Judge Daniel Garcia ruled in favor of Browne. In his ruling, he stated that he did not find any evidence that Browne had committed time card or worker's compensation fraud which were among the reasons cited by city officials for his termination in February. The judge also ruled that he found "no competent evidence that he falsified his time card."

The EDD hearing brought several revelations about a number of incidents surrounding his leave of absence that eventually concluded with his firing. At the same hearing, the city's attorney read the 11 reasons why Browne was terminated. Among them was of Browne attending a golfing event at Diablo Canyon, which Browne proved with evidence that this trip was made with the knowledge of the city manager and Ponton, his immediate supervisor at the time.

Other revelations made at the hearing included the city manager's admission that she had attended a Christmas party hosted by the developers of River Islands without paying for the tab which is against city policy. A few days after the EDD hearing, Quiring provided the Bulletin a copy of the letter she wrote to River Islands and the enclosed personal check to pay for the Christmas dinner.

Also revealed at the EDD hearing, and presented as evidence, was a videotape made by a private investigator showing Browne leaving his home and going to the gas station, eating breakfast and playing golf at the Manteca Golf Course. The videotape also showed the video cam-toting PI following Browne into the men's room. Browne said he was stalked for four days.

The city's worker's comp fraud charge was based on the videotape showing Browne playing golf while supposedly being on medical leave. What the city did not know was that he has been released by his primary doctor to return to work by that time and was no longer on worker's comp, according to Browne's testimony during the EDD hearing.

He also testified that after he was fired, the city left a $16,000 check which covered his last paycheck and his unused vacation leave stapled on his front door while he was away from home.

Browne has been without a job since February. At the EDD hearing, he testified that he was never given any advance verbal or written explanation as to why he was being fired, or any reason why he was placed on administrative leave on July 26, 2007, the day before he was scheduled to return to his job after being cleared by his primary doctor to return to work.

Manteca Bulletin, September 17, 2008


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Council accused of Brown Act violation
The city attorney's office denies any wrongdoing

By Angela Potter, Staff Writer

Four of the five members of the Dana Point City Council have signed a statement opposing the effort to recall Mayor Diane Harkey.

Recall proponents responded immediately by sending a letter to City Attorney Patrick Munoz accusing the council members of violating the state's open meeting law. The statement is worded as a resolution, but isn't on any official letterhead.

The city attorney's office has countered with a letter which said the City Council has done nothing wrong and the resolution was simply an expression of personal political beliefs. The city attorney's office says signing the resolution didn't constitute an official city action.

Mayor Diane Harkey and City Council members Lisa Bartlett, Joel Bishop and Steven Weinberg signed a resolution dated Sept. 4 which says the accusations against Harkey are "not well founded" and that the recall detracts from city business.

Councilwoman Lara Anderson did not sign.

No one denies that the City Council members are entitled to their own opinions about the recall. But Jim Lacy, former City Councilman and recall proponent, said the document was meant to establish that the recall did not have City Council support and was a clear case of a Brown Act violation.

"There's no question about it," he said. "It's not even close. Their intention was to promote this as a collective decision of the City Council to establish that the City Council had collectively decided to oppose the recall."

The document has only five lines for signatures and was not signed by any members of the public, which Lacy said was further evidence that the resolution was meant to be seen as an official city action.

But in his written response to Lacy's letter accusing the council of a Brown Act violation, John Ramirez, who works in the city attorney's office, pointed out that, "Nowhere on the document is there any indication that it is, or purports to be, an official City document."

"The city simply had nothing to do with the creation of the alleged document," Ramirez wrote. "Indeed, the only support for your position is that the document was signed by members of the City Council and is dubbed a 'resolution.' � Furthermore, it goes without saying that simply because a document is entitled 'resolution' does not make it an official city resolution."

Terry Francke is the general counsel with Californians Aware, an organization that promotes open government and free speech. He said that, in his opinion, the resolution was likely a violation of the Brown Act, a state law that requires public agencies to post agendas and meet publicly, unless a topic is exempt.

However, Francke also acknowledged the argument that the document could be seen as nothing more than a statement of personal political beliefs.

One point of concern, Francke said, is that the document is dated Sept. 4 � the same day as a City Council meeting, further blurring the line between official and non-official city action. The council did not discuss or debate the recall issue during that meeting, and there was nothing on the agenda pertaining to the recall.

"I'm afraid using the word resolution and releasing this document after a council meeting really does blur that distinction and leaves them open to severe criticism at least," he said.

It would have been better, Francke said, for the City Council to debate the issue during an open and properly noticed City Council meeting with a public vote on the issue.

"Nothing prevented them from doing this publicly," he said. "Obviously any one of them or all four individually could have said, 'I think this recall stinks.' When they do so collectively, and when they do so in a joint expression called a resolution, it seems to me close enough to an official expression they had better discuss and debate that resolution at a property noticed and open meeting."

But in his letter responding to Lacy's claim, Ramirez said it would not be appropriate to politick from the dias.

"The issue addressed in the challenged document is the political stance of individual members of the City Council regarding the effort to recall Mayor Harkey," Ramirez wrote. "Neither a city nor a City Council has authority to engage in partisan politics. Such partisan political actions are quintessentially outside the subject matter jurisdiction of the City or City Council."

Orange County Register, September 12, 2007


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Harassment suit against Nunez fuels arguments

By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer

ROSEMEAD - Conflicting opinions in connection with a sexual harassment lawsuit surfaced last week when a councilman challenged the city's response.

Rosemead has denied allegations in the lawsuit filed by staff employee Valerie Mazone in April. She sued the city and Councilman John Nunez, claiming that he sexually harassed her at work since September 2005.

Both the city and Nunez cited multiple defenses to the allegations, including that Mazone's lawsuit is a "frivolous, unfounded and unreasonable cause of action for sexual harassment."

Longtime Councilman Gary Taylor said at a council meeting on Tuesday that those denials conflict with a closed-door verbal report made by a private investigator to council members.

"I am shocked and appalled at this response," Taylor said about the city's court response to the lawsuit. "That's not what happened."

Officials and council members would not comment on Taylor's statements because they said the report was confidential, and discussing the lawsuit in public could be a violation of the state's open meeting law.

"The (Ralph M.) Brown Act prohibits members of legislative bodies from disclosing things said in closed session," said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group. "It seems that the law clearly stands in the way of being candid about honesty in litigation."

The Brown Act mandates how municipalities and public agencies conduct their meetings.

Former City Manager Andrew Lazzaretto in April said that the city hired private investigator Tess Elconin to look into the allegations against Nunez.

The city paid Elconin $10,000 for a three-week-long investigation.

Lazzaretto said no written report was issued to the City Council and no documents from the investigation will be made public to "avoid embarrassment."

Elconin reported her findings to the council in a closed session meeting, Lazzaretto said. He would not elaborate on what findings were made.

The lawsuit alleges that Nunez massaged Mazone, leered at her, and "on one occasion looked directly into her blouse in an attempt to observe Plaintiff's breasts."

Taylor on Tuesday requested any copies of written reports made by Elconin. He also said the verbal findings were not reflected in the city's response to the lawsuit.

"What is proceeding is not what was discussed," during the closed session report, Taylor said on Tuesday.

City Attorney Bonifacio "Bonny" Garcia would not say whether Taylor's statements on Tuesday violated the Brown Act.

"I really cannot comment on that," Garcia said Friday.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, July 23, 2007

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Sworn to root out the corrupt
DA's integrity unit polices pols' behavior

By Frank C. Girardot, Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - David Demerjian's office window looks north from downtown over a small slice of the county that pays him to police its politicians.

Inside the office, on the seventh floor of a building well past its prime, Demerjian is surrounded by law books, CDs, photographs and a faded coffee table history of Mad Magazine.

As head of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Public Integrity Division, Demerjian, 53, hopes he is the man corrupt politicians fear most.

In recent weeks, politicians in several local cities, including Covina, Montebello and Alhambra, have found themselves in Demerjian's crosshairs.

It wasn't always that way.

"It seems like just recently we've been active in the San Gabriel Valley," Demerjian said. "The more success we have, the more people become aware of what we do - although the number of complaints we have is very constant." The enforcement of statutes as arcane as the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law, or as basic as bribery of public officials is a relatively new concept in Los Angeles County, Demerjian said.

Prior to 2000, officials pretty much ignored the petty crimes of politicians and appointed officials, Demerjian said.

"I didn't even know corruption existed in Los Angeles County," he said.

Things changed just after Steve Cooley was elected DA. Cooley said he formed the division after a reporter asked him to look into a Brown Act violation involving the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"The Brown Act was never enforced - ever, ever, ever, since it was enacted in 1952," Cooley said. "We started enforcing it the first week I was in office."

Since 2001, the PID has handled 259 Brown Act complaints. From those complaints, Demerjian has sent 69 letters to various city councils, school boards, water and special districts. Unlike corruption cases, which are criminal, Brown Act violations are normally civil matters.

"If there is a violation, there are two letters we might write," Demerjian said. "One says, `We believe you violated the \ on such and such a day. And we are asking you declare that action to be void."

The second?

"It's basically a `knock it off' letter," Demerjian said.

Only one agency, the Covina Redevelopment Agency, has ever been targeted for civil action in a Brown Act case, primarily because the CRA didn't agree it had violated the law. That case is ongoing and awaiting an interpretation from the state attorney general.

Beyond Brown Act cases, Demerjian has received 2,061 complaints of criminal activity and corruption, according to official records.

From those, 156 felony cases have been filed. Demerjian has taken 12 cases to trial and earned 11 convictions.

Unlike most other prosecutorial offices, which rely on police to bring forward cases, the PID looks into complaints generated by the general public.

Sometimes the complaints come from legitimately concerned citizens; others are merely political.

"We do see that when a majority in a city changes we end up with new targets," Demerjian said. "Sometimes whoever gets voted out, all of a sudden they are filing a complaint with us because the other side is now getting a bigger piece of the pie."

Open-government advocate Terry Francke of Californians Aware said connecting Brown Act and criminal prosecutions makes Demerjian's office more effective.

"It's an interesting linkage," Francke said. "You are not going to find a corrupt, yet, admirably open government."

Demerjian grew up in Covina and graduated from South Hills High School. He attended Cal State Fullerton, graduated law school and was hired by the DA's Office; first prosecuting juveniles.

From there, he moved to major narcotics prosecutions and finally hard-core gangs, he said.

As head of the hard-core gang unit, Demerjian filed the case against three Pasadena men accused of killing three teens on Halloween night in 1993.

The three men - Lorenzo Newborn, Herbert McClain, and Karl Holmes - were ultimately sentenced to death three years to the day after the killings. Jonlyn Callahan, a prosecutor in the case, now works for Demerjian in the PID.

Going after criminal corruption isn't too different from going after gang members, Demerjian said.

"The witness intimidation factor is similar," he said. "People are afraid to speak out."

Being targeted in a PID investigation is nothing to take lightly. As with any police agency serving search warrants, PID investigators come to the door with guns drawn and a willingness to leave no stone unturned.

West Covina City Councilman Roger Hernandez was targeted in 2005 as part of an investigation that concluded in March with no charges being filed.

"There was knocking at the door," Hernandez said, recalling the day when the condominium he shares with his brother was searched.

"I popped the door open, looked outside and there were multiple firearms pointing at me," Hern ndez said. "It's traumatic to have people going through your underwear drawer, your sock drawer. It's a traumatizing, violating experience."

Former Baldwin Park City Councilman Bill Van Cleave, who is facing trial in July for misuse of public funds, recalled a similar experience.

"They kicked my door in and held guns to my head," said Van Cleave. "They handcuffed me and took me in. And now, I can say they ruined my entire life. I can't work, and I can't sleep."

On the other hand, Covina resident and community activist Steve Millard, who brought the complaint against the Covina Redevelopment Agency, praised Demerjian and his deputies.

"I have dealt with them directly," Millard said. "It wasn't like they were there talking about golf scores."

Besides Van Cleave, the PID has put together a wide variety of local corruption cases, according to public documents.

Among them:

People v. Pete Sabatino (2002): Sabatino, a member of the West Covina School Board, pleaded guilty to perjury after PID investigators determined that he lived in Downey. He resigned from the board.

People v. Cody Cluff (2003): Cluff, a onetime resident of Covina, pleaded guilty to several counts of misuse of public funds and embezzlement. The crimes were allegedly committed while Cluff headed the Entertainment Industry Development Council.

People v. Parker Williams and Frank Liu (pending): Williams, a former Alhambra councilman, was videotaped allegedly offering a $25,000 cash bribe to current councilman Danny Arguello in return for his vote on a proposed shopping center. Liu, a developer, is also charged in the case. The case is scheduled to go to trial later this year.

Demerjian said he anticipates the DA's Office will continue prosecuting political corruption for many years.

"I'm hoping that at some point if Steve Cooley doesn't want to run for DA, whoever comes in wants to keep this thing going," Demerjian said. "I think it serves an important function."

The function is simple to define, according to Cooley.

"The public is benefitting and all the honest people on city councils are benefitting too," Cooley said. "In a sense we're standing up for them."

Whittier Daily News, May 28, 2007

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La Habra Heights city attorney says county DA overreacted in letter about possible Brown Act violation

By Mike Sprague Staff Writer

LA HABRA HEIGHTS - City Attorney Sandra Levin said the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office overreacted in its warning letter to Mayor Howard Vipperman about an e-mail the DA said could have led to a violation of the state's open-meeting law.

Levin said she was offended by the warning letter.

"They have a bit of a reputation different from other counties that take a much more cooperative and collaborative approach," she said. "The District Attorney's Office in Los Angeles County tends to take an approach of shoot first, ask questions later."

The issue is over an e-mail Vipperman sent to Levin, which said he wanted the council to reconsider action on building a new home at 1454 Kashlan Road.

"I would like to put it back on the agenda," Vipperman stated in the April 28 e-mail. "I would like to not take public comments if possible. I would like an agenda item crafted to amend our previous decision by removing any conditions."

The item was taken up at the City Council's May 14 meeting and public comment was allowed.

Jennifer Lentz Snyder, assistant head deputy for the District Attorney's Office, said Vipperman's letter didn't violate the law.

"But we were concerned about what appears to be a misapprehension about public comment," Snyder said. "There were certainly some aspects of the request that don't serve open and transparent government."

Levin called Snyder's letter to Vipperman unnecessary.

"In my view there was never any danger here of the public being deprived of comment to which they were entitled nor was there ever any intention to do so," she stated.

Had there been a council member who wanted to do so, why discourage him or her from seeking legal advice, she asked.

Levin raised three complaints.

The e-mail reflected privileged communication because it was attorney-client privilege, Levin stated.

Snyder never called her or anyone at La Habra Heights City Hall and she interpreted the e-mail in a manner that "is both unwarranted and ... inappropriately inflammatory," Levin stated.

"What do you suppose the result is when council members get slapped on the wrist for merely asking their counsel to comply with the Brown Act?" she stated. "This kind of second-guessing and intrusion into the attorney-client privilege is a significant deterrent to council members who wish to seek legal advise on how to comply with the Brown Act."

Snyder said her office doesn't meet with council members whom complaints have been filed against unless there are some facts that need to be discerned.

"We are absolutely steadfastly dedicated to ensuring the integrity of our evaluation process," Snyder said. "There's something counterintuitive about meeting with public officials behind closed doors when the very subject matter is open transparent meetings."

She also rejected the idea that the e-mail was privileged.

"There's nothing in the e-mail that suggests it would be attorney-client privileged," Snyder said.

"What we were attempting to do is advise the writer of the very limited circumstances in which public comment need be not held," she said. in her letter to Snyder.

Whittier Daily News, June 16, 2009
See DA's letter here.


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Council may have violated Brown Act
Commission appointment will be voted on again

By Alison Hewitt, Staff Writer

SAN DIMAS - The San Dimas City Council will re-vote to appoint a new planning commissioner after an initial vote took place without being clearly posted on the agenda.

The May 15 agenda item read only "Planning Commission Interviews" followed by the names and interview times of the applicants. The council did not take a vote after an almost identically posted May 14 agenda item.

The discrepancy violates the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open meeting law, city resident Patrick Jones told the City Council at their Tuesday night meeting.

"I'm a little upset, because the agenda that was posted identifies that there are planning commission interviews - it does not say anything about any action as far as appointments," Jones said. "The easiest fix is to put it on the agenda of the next meeting."

There will be another council vote in response to Jones' concerns, City Attorney Ken Brown said Wednesday.

"The agenda could have been written better," Brown said, although he denied that there was any violation of the Brown Act.

However, Assistant City Manager Ken Duran described the vote as a "ratification" that would have happened anyway.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group, said the council violated the Brown Act.

"If they mean to take action by voting, it must be on the agenda, not just a listing of who will be interviewed," Francke said. "There's a pretty clear distinction between conducting interviews and hiring for a position."

Holding the vote over again is "the least that they can do" to give residents an opportunity to comment, Francke said. A re-vote could also protect the city from a lawsuit or a challenge to the validity of the appointment.

The newly appointed - or soon-to-be-newly appointed - planning commissioner is John Davis, said City Clerk Ina Rios.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, May 24, 2007


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Public takes West Covina council to task

By Frank C. Girardot, Staff Writer

WEST COVINA - More than 200 residents crowded City Hall for Tuesday's City Council meeting to engage in an often emotional debate over several issues many speakers said are dividing West Covina in an election year.

A total of 39 residents asked to address the council - and did so - on a variety of topics ranging from graffiti abatement to a proposed condominium development to their thoughts on Councilman Roger Hernandez.

The public comment portion of the meeting was frequently punctuated by cheering, applause, boos and heckling. The interruptions prompted an admonishment from City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman to the crowd and the council.

"This is not a pep rally for one side or the other," Alvarez-Glasman said. "This is a business meeting."

Citing the Ralph M. Brown Act, which is the state's open meeting law, Alvarez-Glasman said residents who failed to observe the rules could be removed from the chamber.

Several residents told the council that they were unhappy with a proposed development in the 800 block of South Sunset Avenue and accused four members of the City Council of ignoring the concerns of voters in favor of of developers who have contributed to their campaigns. "Your planning commission was against this," said resident Elsie Messman. "You are not listening. Touhey, Lane, Herfert and Sanderson are working for the fat cat builders. I don't feel like I live in West Covina. I feel like I live in `Touhey Town.' West Covina has the best council money can buy."

Last month, the City Council approved plans for the McIntyre Cos. development over the objections of the planning commission and several neighbors who claimed they will be adversely affected by the project.

The development will feature 20 units, a small park, and block wall separating it from the surrounding neighborhood. On Tuesday, the council voted 3-0 to set the project aside for more study.

Voting for the development were council members Steve Herfert, Shelley Sanderson and Sherri Lane. Hernandez cast the lone vote of dissention.

Mayor Mike Touhey, who had worked as a consultant for McIntyre in the past, was absent from the April meeting.

Earlier in the night, audience members split over whether Hernandez was entitled to assume the post of mayor. The councilman was dropped from the mayoral rotation when the council voted to suspend his rise to the post pending the outcome of an investigation by the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

In March, Hernandez was cleared, which he said paved the way for his return to the rotation under the city's municipal code. He accused the rest of the council from preventing his rise to the post in an election year.

Resident Betty Valles spoke directly to Hernandez's claim.

"All I can say now Roger is, `grow up,"' Valles said. "All you are doing is disrupting the rest of the Latino community. Grow up and be honest."

Hernandez Tuesday denied injecting race into the discussion.

But in an interview with this newspaper Monday, Hernandez said race was one of several factors stopping his appointment.

"It has everything to do with preventing a Latino from attaining the post," Hernandez said Monday. "I'm asking for what's fair and due to me."

At the close of public comments, Hernandez spent several minutes defending himself further, and pointed to the rest of the council for making questionable deals with developers and attorneys.

"Thank you all for being here," Hernandez said. "I appreciate this public discourse. It's healthy for you to express your support and concerns. Tonight you've proven you care about your community."

Touhey also made extensive remarks at the close of the public comment session only to be warned by Alvarez-Glasman 25 minutes after the close of public comments that the council was in danger of violating a Brown Act provision the prohibits discussing business not on the agenda.

In the final comments from the dais, Herfert said he was disappointed by the viciousness of the debate.

"When you demean me like I'm an animal or a vegetable, it hurts," he said. "We take it, but I think you make yourself look foolish."

Three and a half hours after the meeting began, the council began undertaking its regular business at 10:35 p.m.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, May 2, 2007

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Local officials wary of tighter law on open meetings

By Jennifer McLain, Staff Writer

A proposed state Senate bill that will further limit private meetings between staff members and elected officials could do more harm than good, some local city managers said.

Senate Bill 964, proposed by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, will amend the open government legislation, the Ralph M. Brown Act, to prohibit any closed-door serial communications between staff and council members.

A serial meeting is a chain of communications that involve a majority of the body's members, although not necessarily at the same time.

As the Brown Act is written now, serial communications are permitted so long as they don't result in a collective agreement on an issue.

"We believe this bill will resolve some transparency concerns in the government," said Romero spokesman Russell Lopez.

The proposed bill would prevent meetings even if a majority of council members had a question on an issue if the information is not on the agenda.

Area city managers, however, say that this could have a chilling effect on routine communication between staff and council members.

"We are not trying to create a hidden government," said Monterey Park City Manager Chris Jeffers, "but there is some information that you need to transmit to council members."

Vijah Singhal, CEO for Baldwin Park, said he thinks the bill will "isolate" council members from the staff.

While there is room for improvement in the Brown Act, Terry Francke, open government law expert, said that SB 964 is a step in the right direction to ensure that government stays open.

"I think \ are a fairly widespread practice, and it is something that just makes a mockery of holding public meetings," said Francke, who wrote the major revisions to the Brown Act in 1994.

The Brown Act, adopted by the Legislature in 1953, requires meetings of local government legislative bodies to be "open and public" to safeguard the public's right to access and participate in government.

The act was amended in 2006, after the Wolfe v. City of Fremont court decision that found that meetings between a city manager and individual city council members for the purpose of discussing a policy issue does not violate the Brown Act, so long as a decision is not reached by the majority.

But the problem with that ruling, Francke said, is that it is difficult to enforce.

"Serial meetings are not a problem so long as the process doesn't result in the members of the council coming up with a secret agreement," Francke said. "Whether you can prove it is the problem."

Romero is proposing the bill because of alleged closed-door meetings within Los Angeles County.

Opponents of the bill, however, say that it is too restrictive.

"The measure, if approved, would prohibit staff from having communications with all the council members unless it is a public meeting," said Oliver Chi, deputy city manager for Rosemead, whose council voted 4-1 to oppose the bill.

The League of California Cities opposed SB 964, stating that it would significantly limit the ability of city officials to communicate with city councils outside an open and public meeting.

League representatives said it will continue to oppose legislation that unnecessarily complicates the ability of a local governing board to properly communicate and function on behalf of their citizens.

Pasadena Star News, April 28, 2007


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DA requests council's minutes; Complaint spurs Brown Act probe

By Frank C. Girardot, Staff Writer

MONTEBELLO - The District Attorney's office Thursday requested the minutes of a City Council meeting at which City Attorney J. Arnoldo Beltran was hired.

Deputy District Attorney David Demerjian, head of the Public Integrity Division, said the request was initiated after a complaint was received about an alleged violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open meeting law. The investigation was opened March 16, he said.

"We will normally want to look at the agenda and minutes and a video recording or a tape recording - if there is such a thing," Demerjian said. "Normally a review of these items resolves the issue."

He declined to say who made the complaint.

The Feb. 6 special meeting agenda included a discussion of a housing bond in open session. The council then adjourned to closed session and voted 3-2 to retain the services of Beltran.

Minutes of the 3 p.m. meeting were not available Thursday and won't be available until they are approved by the council, said a spokeswoman for the city clerk's office.

The council reported out of the closed session that council members Rosie Vasquez, Jeff Siccama and Bill Molinari voted for Beltran while Mayor Norma Lopez-Reid and Councilman Bill Bagwell voted against.

In a subsequent meeting, Bagwell later joined the majority in a 4-0 vote to authorize Beltran's contract. Lopez-Reid abstained and has since refused to sign Beltran's contract.

Beltran had no comment Thursday on the DA's probe.

"I think if the DA wants to come in and take a close look and scrutinize, I'm for it," Lopez-Reid said. "It will help the city in the long run. Some of us, who haven't done anything wrong, know we're fine."

Open government law expert Terry Francke of Californians Aware said it would be hard to pinpoint what the investigators are seeking. But, it's likely something may have happened in closed session to trigger a complaint and the probe, he said.

It's possible that "a member of the council or somebody else with personal knowledge tipped the DA that something improper went on there," Francke said.

As mayor, Lopez-Reid's signature is required to approve all contracts before they take effect. Lopez-Reid said she declined to sign Beltran's contract because of personal reservations.

"I didn't vote for the man and I have reservations about \," Lopez-Reid said.

Molinari, meanwhile, said Thursday that the council should schedule a special meeting to hold Lopez-Reid accountable for her inaction.

"What this amounts to is an illegal action to force Mr. Beltran to resign," Molinari said. "There's no justification for this conduct."

Molinari would be able to sign Beltran's contract in the event of Lopez-Reid's absence from the city or incapacitation.

Lopez-Reid urged Molinari to go ahead and sign the deal.

"Maybe if we do have a special meeting we can designate him to sign the contact," Lopez-Reid said.

Whittier Daily News, April 27, 2007

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Open meetings: DA vs. cities

By Ruby Gonzales, Staff Writer

COVINA - At its Dec. 20 meeting, the Covina City Council received a visit from Santa Claus, heard a resident complain about drivers running red lights at Puente and Grand avenues and talked about cracking down on taggers.

That same night, the three members of the council present changed hats and met as the Covina Redevelopment Agency. They then went into closed session to discuss a $1.75 million loan to Bert's Motorcycle and Watercraft Mega-Mall, which wanted to expand and remodel its 128,000-square-foot building on Azusa Avenue.

When Peggy Delach, John King and George Chadwickcame out of closed session, they approved the deal. It included reimbursing Bert's owner, Seidner Enterprises Inc., an additional $2.25 million over 10 years for construction costs.

That decision has propelled the Covina Redevelopment Agency into a legal battle with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, which alleges the agency violated the state's open-meeting law when it went into closed session. Prosecutors sued the agency on March 2.

Each side interprets the Ralph M. Brown Act differently.

Prosecutors say the redevelopment agency broke the law because its discussions of the loan went from being an open-session issue to a closed-session item. Covina officials say that the Brown Act allows them to meet in closed session in this particular instance.

"We are merely attempting to point out to the District Attorney's Office, and we've done that on numerous instances, that the Brown Act allows for closed-session meetings on real property negotiations," said Covina City Manager Paul Philips. "There's just a deep division on what their view is and ours."

The Brown Act was created in 1953 to ensure elected bodies don't make decisions without the public knowing. It requires all meetings be held in public. But it does allow agencies in certain circumstances to meet behind closed doors, such as when they need to talk about employee salaries and benefits, pending lawsuits and real property negotiations.

"It boils down to a simple concept: Everything you do has to be in public unless you can exert a specific exception," said District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Covina officials deny they violated the Brown Act.

"The District Attorney's Office has no right to assign guilt or innocence. Just because they said we violated the law doesn't mean we did," Philips said.

Public access watchdogs say it's not unusual for cities to say they didn't violate the Brown Act or disagree with the prosecutor's interpretation of it. What is rare is to fight it in court.

"I would say it's unprecedented," said Terry Francke, legal counsel for the nonprofit Californians Aware, which advocates for open government. "What they usually say is: We see it differently but we're not looking for a fight."

The Covina case marks only the second time L.A. County prosecutors have sued a governing body for possible violation of the Brown Act. More often, a letter from the District Attorney's Office is enough to get agencies to comply, said Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Snyder.

"Our goal is compliance. We want the law followed," said Snyder, one of two deputy district attorneys who handle Brown Act complaints. "The fact there's only been two lawsuits speaks to the fact that most agencies comply."

Philips said Covina officials asked to meet with prosecutors several times but were rebuffed. He said they have never interviewed him, the city attorney or any of the city staff. He said prosecutors asked for and were provided documents, including an audio tape of the Dec. 20 meeting.

Philips said prosecutors also rejected his suggestion to hire a retired judge to listen to both sides' points of view.

"What is the harm in sitting down and discussing differences in opinion? Sending letters back and forth and filing lawsuits - it's a tremendous waste of public funds of the county and city," he said.

Philips said he isn't trying to stir up things and added that the city has a high regard for the District Attorney's Office.

"They need to tell us how the Brown Act will be handled," Philips said. "There has to be a dialogue. A lawsuit doesn't serve anyone. It's unfortunate but we have to defend ourselves."

But as it prepares to defend itself in the lawsuit, Covina has been accused of trying to harass and muzzle two critics. One of them, former Mayor Bob Low, wrote the complaint that led to the District Attorney's lawsuit.

Covina's lawyer, Jennifer Pancake, served subpoenas to Low and Stephen Millard, who are witnesses to the lawsuit. Both were told to appear at depositions and to provide 10 years' worth of documents - from letters to the editors to this newspaper to communications with prosecutors.

Low and Millard say the city is harassing them and trying to make them an example to others. Pancake denies that accusation. She said Covina is entitled to find out what witnesses know as part of discovery.

Snyder, the deputy district attorney, declined to discuss the Covina case because it is an ongoing litigation. But she said the District Attorney's Office does receive requests to sit down and meet with agencies.

"Our job is not to advise but to enforce," she said. "The most reasonable minds may differ, but we don't believe the appropriate forum is a sit-down, closed-door meeting."

The District Attorney's Office often participates in panel discussions held by organizations about the Brown Act. Prosecutors say they do a lot of training and outreach to make people aware.

"When city attorneys disagree with our analysis, they can go to court. We can go to court," Cooley said.

The Public Integrity Division

In Los Angeles County, the job of making sure city councils, school boards and other agencies follow the Brown Act falls to the District Attorney's Public Integrity Division, which was established five years ago.

The division is just a small part of a department with 965 deputy district attorneys, about 250 investigators and an operating budget of $288 million.

Comprised of eight attorneys and 12 investigators, the Public Integrity Division is also responsible for investigating complaints of corruption and wrongdoings by government agencies and officials.

From 2001 to 2005, the division received 204 complaints of Brown Act violations and dispatched 51 letters to agencies notifying them of their mistakes. Called a "cure and correct" letter by Snyder, each explains what steps must be taken to correct the alleged violations. An agency has 30 days to respond to the letter.

Violating the Brown Act is a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and a maximum of six months in jail. But the division hasn't filed a criminal case against anyone. Prosecutors mostly rely on the letters to get their message across. But if needed, the Public Integrity Division can file a civil lawsuit.

"Our ultimate goal is compliance, not prosecution," said Snyder, who is second in command at the division.

She and Dave Demerjian, who heads the unit, handle Brown Act complaints.

Since its creation, the unit also has filed 125 felony cases against politicians and their associates. And the most recent figures show it obtained 77 convictions, including that of former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley and attorney Pierce O'Donnell, who pleaded no contest to laundering campaign funds for former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn.

The office files charges in about 7 percent of the cases it looks at, Demerjian said.

"I don't care about politics," Demerjian said. "I only care about crime."

The division receives an average of 338 complaints of all types to review and investigate each year. It only handles written complaints.

About 80 percent of those complaints aren't crimes at all and are closed, Demerjian said.

But the issue that keeps the division busy is enforcing a law that in the past has been widely ignored - the Brown Act.

Snyder or Demerjian will review complaints of possible Brown Act violations. If there's enough information about the alleged violation, they will open an investigation.

She said typically, a Brown Act violation can be assessed by looking at the meeting agenda, the minutes of the meeting and listening to recordings of the meeting. There could be circumstances when investigators will be sent to talk to people, she added. They also will check if the agency was the subject of a prior complaint.

When prosecutors send out letters, Snyder said they usually get 99 percent compliance.

She said the types of complaints run the gamut.

The division can't reveal the names of whoever makes a complaint. It's privileged information under the state evidence code. But in certain cases, the names do come out. That was true in the Covina case.

The unit also doesn't publicize the names of the agencies being investigated.

"Anybody can make an allegation about anything. ... We are cognizant an allegation is not true until proven," Snyder said.

Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, said she doesn't recall her office ever issuing a press release saying an agency received a "cure and correct" letter or that somebody was being investigated for allegedly violating the Brown Act.

But the District Attorney's Office will verify if such an agency is being investigated or received such a letter.

Other incidents

Covina isn't the only local agency to allegedly run afoul of the open meeting law.

In February, the Public Integrity Division sued the Renaissance Academy Charter School, which was then located in West Los Angeles, for alleged Brown Act violations. Snyder said it was the first group to be sued by the division. The lawsuit was settled shortly after it was filed and the case was dismissed a month later.

"In general, they were not giving proper notice, meeting in closed session improperly and not allowing \ public in meetings," Snyder said.

She said the school, which was interested in complying, didn't understand the law. The school later secured an attorney to help them. The board agendas later showed the school had complied, eliminating the need for a lawsuit, Snyder said.

Knar Mouhibian, chairwoman of the school board, said they were basically picked on by a group of people who were calling the District Attorney's Office and making allegations.

She said the District Attorney's Office filed the lawsuit to protect the statute of limitations. They were sued while they were arguing the technicalities of one issue with prosecutors. They settled quickly.

"It was a mutual working it out. The lady at the District Attorney's Office was very nice, not mean to us or anything. They just had to follow up on these complaints," she said.

In Pico Rivera, the City Council had to cancel its previous decision to give then-City Manager Dennis Courtemarche a pay raise after prosecutors alleged a Brown Act violation.

In July 2003, a council majority voted to give Courtemarche a $40,000 raise. But in October 2003, the District Attorney's Office said the council violated the Brown Act by discussing pay raises for Courtemarche and Assistant City Manager Ann Negendank in closed session.

Prosecutors told the council to repeal the raise, which they did.

The council voted a second time on a pay raise for Courtemarche, but it failed 3-2. The issue came up again in 2004 and was successful.

"The District Attorney's Office said through the city attorney, `There's a little gray area here. To clear it up this is what I suggest you do,"' said Pico Rivera Mayor Pete Ramirez, who voted against the raise.

"The bottom line is, it was a gray area, not totally totally wrong. They fixed it and that was it," he said. Ramirez doesn't know who filed the complaint. He said the council didn't consider challenging prosecutors.

"Why? I'm a retired police officer. If it's wrong, it's wrong," Ramirez said. "The legal counsel said it was best to follow what the District Attorney's Office said."

Ramirez said he has no problems with the Public Integrity Division. He said the unit has to do what it has to do. He considers it a good checks-and- balances system.

In 2000, residents sued the Whittier City School District over its decision to construct a new elementary school on property next to the district office. The plan would have called for homes and a park to be taken.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge decided that the district violated the Brown Act by not properly disclosing items related to the school site in its closed-session meeting agendas and secretly deciding on a location before the public vote on June 30, 2000.

School officials appealed and lost. In February 2002, a state appeals court upheld the lower court ruling.

The District Attorney's Office conducted a criminal investigation. The school district rescinded its vote on the school site after that probe. Officials in the District Attorney's Office said they also believed the school district had violated the Brown Act.

Law is tough to enforce

Francke of Californians Aware said it's difficult to prosecute the Brown Act as a crime thanks to lobbying by city associations and school districts. He said it's also a difficult crime to prove.

He used speeding as an analogy. To prove speeding, police only need to show that the driver exceeded the speed limit.

But if police used the requirements to meet a Brown Act violation, Francke said officers would have to show the driver was aware they were speeding and intended to hurt somebody.

One could still enforce the act without resorting to filing a criminal lawsuit, he said.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, August 6, 2006

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Late meals or backroom deals?

A restaurant for council members, city attorneys and city managers to nosh and chat? The Dal Rae in Pico Rivera is that place. Nothing wrong with eating and schmoozing. Or is there? There is when four council members go together - we call that a Brown Act violation, or a very good imitation.

Open meeting laws forbid a majority of a governing body to meet outside a public forum to discuss government business. That's the key, discussing the people's business in private meetings. Because three of five council members represent a quorum, such outside get-togethers are discouraged.

That didn't stop four members of the West Covina City Council, the city manager, city attorney and a planning commissioner convening at the Dal Rae recently following a council meeting. The only folks left out were Councilman Roger Hernandez, developers and of course the public. That's the point.

Did the group discuss city business? They say they didn't and took the city attorney along to see that the evening was kept social not civic. However, by going to the Pico Rivera restaurant, the group stirred more controversy than it might have otherwise. Folks wonder why they went out of town for the after-council social, perhaps to avoid hometown scrutiny?

Too, they couldn't have chosen a worse watering hole. The Dal Rae is notorious for political deal making and pols make good use of the booths during campaigns to discuss strategy, etc. Nothing wrong with that. But while Rep. Gary Miller and Assemblyman Ron Calderon have dropped some big bucks at the restaurant that specializes in steaks, lobster and other chop house fare, they didn't have a majority of the House of Representatives or the state Assembly along.

Our view is if something looks, acts and walks like a duck, it usually quacks. It's near unprecedented that a city council would reconvene after a meeting with the city manager and city attorney in tow. It looked like a council meeting, it acted like a council meeting and if steak and lobster don't make you waddle, what does?

Certainly we don't like the idea of backroom deals by politicians or those who just might be meeting with lobbyists to talk about dispensing the people's money on special-interest projects.

Our elected officials ought to be circumspect in avoiding such compromising situations. At the least, such action further erodes the public trust, already wearing thin under a barrage of congressional wrongdoing involving similar situations.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley's Public Integrity Division has done good work in shaking out election law and Brown Act violators and looking into possible conflict-of-interest in this end of the county. Perhaps it's time his investigators take a closer look at such meetings - even if it ruffles feathers.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, May 16, 2006


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Officials' outing criticized

By Christina L. Esparza Staff Writer

WEST COVINA - Four City Council members met for an after-meeting snack in Pico Rivera on Tuesday night, raising questions whether their get-together was legal under state open-meeting laws.

Mayor Steve Herfert, Councilman Mike Touhey and Councilwomen Sherri Lane and Shelley Sanderson dined at the Dal Rae restaurant in Pico Rivera with City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman and City Manager Andrew Pasmant after the City Council meeting.

The council members and Alvarez-Glasman said the meeting was "social," therefore not illegal.

"As long as we're not discussing city business," Herfert said.

The Ralph M. Brown Act states it is illegal for a quorum of a legislative body - in this case three or more council members - to meet outside of a public meeting to discuss city business, unless it is closed session.

David Demerjian, head of the Public Integrity Division of the District Attorney's Office said it is "perfectly fine" for the council members to anjoy a social dinner.

Although the four council members maintain they were not discussing city business, Terry Francke, general counsel with Californians Aware - an open-meetings advocacy group - said the dinner is suspect.

"I would say it establishes a reasonable suspicion of a Brown Act violation because in a community that large, I think you have to assume the members, and the others there, \ all not just social friends dating from before their common city-business link," Francke said. "It would at least put the burden on them to explain how that dinner could be characterized as purely social."

The Brown Act exempts purely social gatherings.

Sanderson said Alvarez-Glasman was at the dinner to make sure the members did not discuss city business.

She said she liked her colleagues, and enjoyed relaxing and discussing with them family matters, non-city-related work and other topics.

"The council and our staff is well aware of the Brown Act ... and we've done nothing wrong," Sanderson said. "Nobody's trying to hide anything."

Alvarez-Glasman said city councils sometimes get together after meeting to unwind.

"It's not uncommon for a city council to gather after a council meeting in a social setting," Alvarez-Glasman said, adding if the council wanted to participate in a private meeting, they wouldn't have dinner in a public restaurant.

Council members from Walnut and Covina said they would not have dinner with their colleagues if it wasn't a public event, for fear of how it would look.

"I don't want to find ourselves in a discussion about city business and it not be on the record," said Walnut Councilman Tom King.

Covina Councilman Kevin Stapelton agreed.

"It's too crazy under the current climate," he said.

West Covina City Councilman Roger Hernandez, the only council member not present at the restaurant, said he's confident his colleagues wouldn't violate the Brown Act.

"I wasn't aware of any dinner, nor was I invited," Hernandez said. "But I'm sure they'd be conscientious about what's discussed around the dinner table because city business should be discussed before the public."

No other patrons, besides the West Covina council members and two West Covina residents, were dining at about 11 p.m. at the restaurant. However, the West Covina officials said there were a lot of people dining while they were there, but they stayed a little while longer.

"If we were to receive a written complaint, we would certainly look into it," the DA's Demerjian said. "It certainly has the potential to be a Brown Act violation."

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, May 4, 2006

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Council bickers about Habitat

Gene Maddaus Staff Writer

ARCADIA -- The City Council's dispute over Habitat for Humanity kept simmering this week as Councilman Mickey Segal took aim at Councilwoman Gail Marshall over her suggestion that he and Councilman Gary Kovacic had broken the state's open-meetings law.

Segal characterized Marshall's comments at an earlier council meeting as "her semiannual, self-serving, factually incorrect speech to all of us."

Marshall had suggested that Kovacic and Segal violated the Brown Act when they struck a "backroom deal" with Mayor John Wuo to support a Habitat for Humanity project.

When Wuo backed out and voted against Habitat, Kovacic and Segal withdrew their support for his re-election campaign.

Marshall did not directly accuse the councilmen of violating the open meetings law, but did suggest that "others would be making that determination," referring to the city attorney and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

At this week's council meeting, Segal called that a "reckless remark" and an "outburst." He also seemed to welcome Marshall's upcoming departure from the council, when he praised the electorate for enacting term limits.

Accusations of Brown Act violations are common, and they almost never result in prosecutions. More often -although still rarely - legislative bodies are required to "redo" their actions in public.

Segal declined to comment further Thursday, saying it is best to move on.

In her comments at the Feb. 7 meeting, Marshall took issue with the Star-News' coverage of the controversy, saying it was "one-sided" in favor of Habitat for Humanity.

At the same meeting, Councilman Roger Chandler apologized for a remark implying that poor people belong in El Monte but not in Arcadia. Chandler was part of a 3-2 majority that rejected the Habitat proposal for low- income housing on Alta Street at a Jan. 17 study session.

The city will instead seek a private developer to build moderate-income housing on the site.

At the Feb. 7 meeting, Marshall laid out a detailed history of Kovacic's efforts on behalf of Habitat, arguing that he had a "win-at-all-costs attitude."

Pasadena Star News, February 24, 2006

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Critics rip secret land purchase; Fontana deal may have broken law

Ben Baeder, Staff Writer

FONTANA - The city Redevelopment Agency spent $5 million to buy land from an area congressman without notifying the public, which lawyers and open-government advocates say may have violated state open-meeting laws.

The Redevelopment Agency in July bought 10 parcels totaling about 10 acres near the Interstate 210 extension and Citrus Avenue from Rep. Gary Miller, R-Diamond Bar, whose district includes Chino Hills, Chino and several Los Angeles and Orange county cities.

Claremont land attorney Bob Ferguson, who has published papers on redevelopment for the Claremont Institute, said he thought the deal was unusual, if not illegal.

"In my opinion, that's fraud on the public a violation of law," he said.

But Michael G. Colantuono, who is the city attorney for Sierra Madre, said there are provisions in state law that could possibly allow a redevelopment agency to buy land without announcing it.

"It's tricky," said Colantuono, who has worked as a city attorney in several other cities. "It really depends on how the city went about it."

Three city attorneys reached said it was difficult to say if the transaction was legal, but all said it was highly unusual and they would advise their cities not to keep land deals secret.

Terry Francke, counsel for Californians Aware, an open-government advocacy group, said there is no point in having public agendas if cities are able to spend $5 million behind closed doors.

"The notion that they can spend public money, especially that much of it, and never tell the public, that's totally wrong," said Francke.

Fontana City Attorney Clark Alsop said there was no need to report the deal because the City Council voted earlier in the year to authorize staff to make land purchases on Fontana's behalf.

Fontana never published on public agendas anything that would indicate it was buying the property, such as parcel numbers, negotiating parties or a statement the city had bought the land, according to records from City Hall and statements from city officials. And Miller's name never appears on city agendas.

California open-meeting laws, often referred to as the Ralph M. Brown Act, mandate that any parcel discussed in closed session by a public body be identified in its agendas. Negotiating parties also must be listed.

In Fontana, as well as most cities, the City Council acts as the redevelopment agency board. Both fall under the Brown Act.

Alsop said the purchase was never discussed by elected officials, therefore it never had to be published in a public document.

Miller reported that he owned the property on his 2004 financial-disclosure documents. He said he was angry that Fontana never published the sale.

" `Extremely upset' just barely describes how I'm feeling," Miller said. "On my end, I did everything to tell the public what was going on."

Miller said he bought the land because he had until the end of 2004 to encumber profit he had made two years earlier on the sale of a different plot to Monrovia. If not, he would have had to pay a tax penalty, he said.

Seven months after his purchase, he sold the land to Fontana, according to tax records. He made about $50,000 on the sale, according to tax records and statements from Miller.

Ray Bragg, Fontana's director of redevelopment and special projects, said the city has no immediate plans for the property it bought from Miller. He said Fontana was trying to assemble the smaller lots in the area into one large parcel possibly for commercial development.

Bragg said he had originally negotiated a deal to buy the land from Lewis Investment Co., which sold the land to Miller.

Fontana Mayor Mark Nuaimi said that he and other city officials have openly expressed interest in acquiring land in the area near Citrus and the freeway.

He said Fontana uses Lewis Investment to buy land in the area because the company gets better prices.

"When people know the city is interested in buying land in an area, the price suddenly doubles," Nuaimi said. "What the city wants to do is pay fair-market value and not an inflated rate. I think that's what the taxpayers want."

But Rich McKee, a chemistry professor at Pasadena City College who is the volunteer president of Californians Aware, criticized Fontana for spending money and making unwritten contracts without notifying the public.

"This is a secretive style of government that the people will not stand for," he said.

McKee said he will consider filing a complaint against the city.

San Bernardo County Sun, February 15, 2006

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Alhambra school board attorney resigns

Cindy Chang, Staff Writer

ALHAMBRA -- Francisco Leal, the Alhambra Unified School District's general counsel, has resigned from his post to pre-empt a newly constituted school board from firing him.

Leal's law firm, Leal & Dominguez, was appointed to the Alhambra job in April 2003 over the objections of two school board members who said colleagues with personal ties to Leal were forcing the choice through without adequate time for deliberation.

A parent later sued the school district, alleging the decision to appoint Leal's firm was made behind closed doors in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law.

"We were taking care of friends and not looking at the district as the first priority. That was when things started getting out of hand,' said Barbara Messina, one of the board members who voted against the appointment.

Leal & Dominguez represents the scandal-plagued cities of Bell Gardens, Cudahy and Huntington Park. The firm was fired by Commerce and Lynwood, but was later rehired by Commerce and now does work for the Lynwood Unified School District.

District officials received Leal's resignation letter Tuesday, the same day the board was scheduled to consider canceling his contract at its regular meeting.

Leal says he does not believe the effort to push him out was politically motivated. The school board's plan to consolidate its legal work with another law firm, Lozano Smith, ending the recent practice of spreading the work among several law firms, "makes sense,' according to Leal.

"I get a sense that they're looking to consolidate their legal services. At this point, another firm is doing most of the services. It's been an ongoing issue with the district, how to best handle their legal services,' Leal said.

New school board members Adele Andrade-Stadler and Pat Mackintosh beat two incumbents in November to win their seats, running as a slate with Messina.

The board, like the City Council, had been split between two factions, with Messina and Bob Gin on one side, William Vallejos and Ruth Castro on the other, and John Nunez trying to stay on good terms with both.

The Messina school board slate was backed by Mayor Paul Talbot, and Talbot-supported candidates swept the City Council races, tilting the balance of power on both bodies decidedly in favor of the Talbot faction.

Nunez had voted with Vallejos and Castro to award the general counsel job to Leal's firm, and the support of Andrade- Stadler and Mackintosh gave Messina and Gin the majority they needed to reconsider the contract.

Vallejos, one of the school board incumbents who was unseated, would not comment on the decision to place the Leal contract back on the agenda, though he said it did not surprise him.

"That's the new board, and I prefer not to comment on what they're doing,' said Vallejos, who accepted campaign donations from Leal, and who recently took a job at Leal's firm.

The district's contract with Leal's lobbying firm, Legislative Advocacy Group, was also slated for cancellation at Tuesday's school board meeting and was ended by the school board after Leal's resignation letter. Under that August 2001 contract, the school district paid Legislative Advocacy $4,000 a month, even though board members say the firm had done little work in recent years.

The Leal & Dominguez contract sets hourly rates ranging from $140 an hour for junior attorneys to $175 an hour for Leal's services.

School board members hope consolidating legal work with Lozano Smith will save them money because such contracts are typically negotiated with a single price tag, allowing the client to dispense with the uncertainties of hourly billing.

Unlike Leal's firm, Lozano Smith has a substantial education law practice, representing more than 300 school and college districts.

"We brought up the fact of what we could do to put money back into the classroom. We had to start downsizing someplace. We had quite a few lawyers, and we had to take a few away,' Mackintosh said.

Pasadena Star News, January 13, 2005


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Pomona Broke State Law, Complaint Says;
D.A. probes allegation that the city violated an open meeting statute.

Hugo Martin, Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is investigating charges that the Pomona City Council violated the state's open meeting law when it approved a downtown business improvement district on Aug. 2, city officials confirmed Monday.

The district attorney's public integrity unit also has requested that the council rescind all decisions made in the July and August council meetings when the improvement district was on the agenda, according to Pomona city officials.

The investigation was triggered by a complaint that the public notice for the council meeting on Aug. 2 was posted in front of City Hall in a glass-encased bulletin board in a way that partially obscured the agenda. Investigators would not say who filed the complaint.

Susan Chasworth, assistant head of the district attorney's public integrity unit, confirmed that her office is investigating possible violations of the Ralph M. Brown Act stemming from the council meetings at which officials discussed the business improvement district. Chasworth would not give details of the investigation.

The council voted July 19 and again Aug. 2 to create the improvement district after property owners in the downtown area voted to support it.

City Atty. Arnold M. Alvarez-Glasman said the district attorney's office wrote to the city recently, noting that investigators had received a complaint that the agenda was partially obscured. The letter also requested that the council rescind all the decisions made at the July 19 and Aug. 2 meetings, he said.

Alvarez-Glasman called the alleged violation a technicality and said he was surprised that the district attorney's office would ask the council to retract all its decisions for the two meetings. He said the city "took an abundance of caution to ensure that the public was notified about the meeting."

Alvarez-Glasman said the council had yet to meet since the alleged violation took place, and was likely to discuss on Sept. 13 how to respond.

Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2004


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City settles developer's lawsuit;
SoPas shopping plaza ready for business

By Mary Bender, Staff Writer

SOUTH PASADENA -- The city will pay a developer $75,000 to settle a lawsuit filed after the company was refused permission to build a shopping plaza on a long-vacant property, the City Council agreed this week. The council butted heads with Huntington Fremont Partners LLC over the developer's plans to bring a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, a Starbucks coffeehouse and other retail shops to the northwest corner of Huntington Drive and Fremont Avenue. The land has been empty since 1988.

Despite the legal challenges and some local opposition, construction on the $2.2 million project began last October and is now complete. So far, Starbucks is the only tenant open in the 7,083-square-foot plaza.

The dispute reached its peak last year, when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge found that the City Council violated the Brown Act and levied a fine against South Pasadena.

The judge penalized the city for a March 2003 closed session in which the council discussed a moratorium on issuing building permits for restaurant-related projects. The developers, who argued that the moratorium was aimed at their project, filed suit.

The temporary halt began in April 2003.

The year before, several neighborhood residents filed a suit against the city in an effort to block the KFC-Starbucks development.

The council unanimously approved the settlement Wednesday night. "This settlement puts an end to the litigation, once and for all,' City Attorney Stephen Pfahler announced after the council's closed session.

"Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the city agreed to dismiss its appeal of the lawsuit [pertaining] to the Superior Court's ruling of 2003,' Pfahler said.

"In return, Huntington Fremont Partners has agreed to waive all of its attorney fees against the city, in exchange for a payment of $75,000,' Pfahler added.

Pasadena Star News, July 9, 2004

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Free-speech advocate targets W.C. council

By Diana L. Roemer, Staff Writer

WEST COVIN -- ACity officials have been asked by a free-speech advocacy group to explain five instances of alleged violations of open-meeting laws.

Richard McKee of the California First Amendment Coalition said he did a "routine review' of the West Covina City Council's 2003 agendas and minutes. On Nov. 15, he filed a request with City Manager Andrew Pasmant for an explanation about actions the council took throughout the year, allegedly in private or without proper public notice or review.

McKee gave the city 30 days to respond to the accusations.

Pasmant said the city will deny McKee's allegations and has not violated any laws.

"We do not believe there are any Brown Act violations. We are very proactive. In fact, we have probably expanded our reporting requirements beyond the law,' Pasmant said.

He said City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman will respond to the claims.

Neither Glasman nor Mayor Steve Herfert returned calls for comment.

McKee said Pasmant is wrong and said the coalition will pursue seeking a remedy to the alleged violations.

"I never start anything I'm not sure about. And I always finish what I start,' McKee, a Pasadena City College chemistry professor, said.

In the demand, McKee requires the city to make a commitment indicating that in the future it will not add items of business to regular meeting agendas without the City Council or Redevelopment Agency posting legally required notifications.

The accusations stem from actions the City Council took in both during open and closed sessions in 2003. Several were about meetings where the purchase of property was not identified correctly or the action was taken during a closed session or without formal public notice about properties.

Other items in question involve closed session meetings on city park projects and discussions about Charter Communications.

McKee, 55, has also questioned approvals made during the consent period of the City Council meeting when an item was not agendized properly and questioned a vote to sue on May 6 over a water line break.

On two separate occasions, according to McKee, the Redevelopment Agency also allegedly violated the Brown Act on May 6 and June 3 by extending negotiating agreements with a developer in closed session.

"There is no authority granted by the Brown Act for discussion or action on exclusive negotiating agreements in a ... closed session,' McKee told the city.

Meeting dates this year in question include Jan. 21, Feb. 8, April 1, April 15, May 6, June 3, July 22, Aug. 19, Sept. 2, Sept. 23, Oct. 7, Oct. 14, Oct. 21 and Nov. 4.

Pasadena Star News, December 4, 2003


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Time for city to go public

EVEN when violations of the Brown Act are proven in court, nothing really seems to happen.

So, it seems there's a lack of incentive to adhere to the letter of the law when it comes to the Ralph M. Brown Act.

The Brown Act sets forth the rules for what can and cannot be discussed in secret by public bodies such as city councils and commissions. And if public bodies do makes decisions while in a secret meeting, they must announce the decisions in public as soon as they come out of secret session.

Earlier this month the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office revealed it had sent the city of La Habra Heights a seven-page report concerning its findings after an investigation of allegations of Brown Act violations by the City Council and Planning Commission in connection with proposed revisions of the city's General Plan.

In this case, a private citizen of the community, Katie Martin, complained last January about the alleged violations. When the DA's report was received by the city, this newspaper contacted Martin and was told by her that she had been "beat up publicly for four months' by people who branded her accusations as false.

Yet, the DA's report concurred that City Council members illegally communicated by e-mail in order to circumvent public discussion and that a questionnaire completed by planning commissioners did the same thing. The DA's report also claimed the city falsified minutes and denied public communication at Planning Commission meetings.

However, no criminal charges were lodged.

"We'd like to see them revise their policies,' was all that was asked by Susan Chatsworth, assistant head deputy with the DA's Public Integrity Division.

She said if the city does not respond favorably, it could lead to criminal complaints.

City Attorney Michael Colantuono denied the falsification of minutes, and denied that the public wasn't given an opportunity to comment.

Chatsworth said she had watched video of meetings in question and contended, "They didn't allow people to comment until after they had made their decision.'

Colantuono also said the City Council will discuss it's response to the charges Thursday at 7 p.m. That special meeting will be held in City Hall's multipurpose room, 1245 N. Hacienda Blvd. We thought you'd want to know.

Since the city's legal representative is denying some of the allegations in the DA's investigative report, we believe there should be a public airing of the charges in court in the interest of adjudicating the truth, which the public also has a right to know.

There are plenty of ways in this day and age for elected and appointed public officials to conduct business in secret but, if it violates the law, we don't think they should get away with it.

Pasadena Star News, October 29, 2003


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Pico Rivera Council Rescinds City Manager's 20% Pay Raise

Joel Rubin, Times Staff Writer

Facing a possible lawsuit from the Los Angeles County district attorney and withering criticism from its constituents, the Pico Rivera City Council has snatched back a large pay raise from its city manager.

Scores of angry residents packed the usually quiet City Council chambers Monday night to vent their concern over a 20% raise for long-term City Manager Dennis Courtemarche that the council discussed during a closed-door session and later approved in July.

"I am astounded at the kind of mentality that is going on here," James Roybal told the council to cheers from the audience. "It is a slap in our face."

In addressing the council, several residents quoted an internal memo from Courtemarche concerning Pico Rivera's perilous financial situation and questioned how the city could afford to raise his salary to $200,000 a year. When a woman tried to speak in support of Courtemarche, she was interrupted by calls of "Sit down!" from the agitated crowd. A handful of others stomped out when the mayor defended the city manager.

The council was forced to rescind the pay increase and vote on it a second time because, in the eyes of the county district attorney, it had violated a state law -- the Brown Act -- that prohibits elected bodies from discussing salary increases in private.

Susan Chasworth, an assistant head deputy in the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, said county lawyers probably would have filed a civil lawsuit against Pico Rivera if it had refused to reconsider the raise in a public forum.

Courtemarche, who had been considering leaving his post before the council approved the pay raise, said Tuesday that he was disappointed by the council's reversal. "I present a package that was needed to justify my staying," he said. "Now the package isn't there, so I have to regroup and see what's up."

On Monday night, Courtemarche looked on silently as the council members nullified the pay package and then once again debated the merits of awarding him a raise.

"I don't like ultimatums," said Councilman Peter Ramirez, referring to what he said were threats from the city manager to quit if not given the raise.

Mayor Beatrice Proo, also a council member, voiced strong support for Courtemarche, insisting his expertise in running the city of 63,000 residents was worth the additional money.

In an unexpected turnaround, Councilman Carlos Garcia reversed his earlier support for the raise and helped rescind it in a 3-2 vote.

"The people showed that they didn't want it, and we voted against it," said Councilman David W. Armenta, adding that nearby cities pay their city managers less and require them to do more.

The Montebello city manager, for example, receives $124,000 a year while overseeing a $90-million budget, which includes the police, fire and transit departments. Pico Rivera, by contrast, operates on $23 million and contracts out police and fire services.

Chasworth said that since its inception in late 2000, the public integrity office has taken action in roughly 25 violations of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires legislative bodies to meet publicly, openly and with adequate notice.

Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2003


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Parent sues Alhambra school board;
Brown Act violation alleged in hiring of law firms

By Cindy Chang, Staff Writer

A parent has filed a lawsuit against the Alhambra school board, alleging that board members secretly agreed on the appointment of two law firms more than a month before voting publicly on the issue.

The parent, Carl Tom, filed the suit after exhausting his out-of-court remedies under the Ralph M. Brown Act, a state law created to ensure legislative deliberations are open to public scrutiny.

The Alhambra board avoided possible legal action earlier this year when it rescinded double- digit raises it had approved for the district's assistant superintendents in response to a Brown Act demand letter filed by the teachers' union.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday, asks for an injunction preventing the law firms from working for the district until the appointments are voted on again.

Even though a second vote would probably result in the appointment of the same two firms, it would affirm the public's right to be involved the process, Tom said.

"They know the right thing to do is to let the public be involved. It's not about the result. It's primarily about the process,' Tom said.

Superintendent Myrna Rivera said she could not comment on the lawsuit since the papers had not yet been officially served on the district.

Attorneys for the two law firms, Leal Olivas Abich & Dominguez and Burke, Williams & Sorensen, could not be reached for comment. Neither firm worked for the district last year but Leal Olivas attorney Francisco Leal is a lobbyist for the Alhambra schools.

Alhambra parents and teachers have sharply criticized the appointments, voicing suspicions that the law firms were chosen because of personal ties with school board members.

The appointment of Leal Olivas has drawn particular scrutiny: politicians in the cities of Commerce, Bell Gardens and Lynwood have accused Francisco Leal and his former law partner, Arnoldo Beltran, of threatening recall campaigns if their firm was not awarded city attorney contracts.

The district spent $422,000 on legal fees, spread among four law firms, from July 2002 through the end of March. The Alhambra district has had to trim $5.2 million from next year's budget because of the state financial crisis.

Richard Davis, Tom's lawyer, pointed to an unsigned retainer agreement as evidence that the appointments were a done deal well before the board voted on them in public.

The retainer agreement, appointing Burke Williams as special counsel for the district, is dated March 13, 2003, and was faxed to Leal for his approval on the same date. The board did not vote on the appointment of the two law firms until April 15.

"It's correspondence that predates the supposed decision by more than a month. Obviously, based on that, it looks like the decision was already made when there were no public deliberations,' Davis said.--

Pasadena Star News, July 8, 2003


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S. Pasadena Tax Panel Violated State Open Meeting Law

Richard Winton

Already beset by scandals involving its police officers and a onetime assistant manager, South Pasadena is now embroiled in another controversy, this time over its acknowledged failure to obey the state's open meetings law when an advisory committee on taxes met behind closed doors.

A divided South Pasadena City Council on Wednesday narrowly voted to place its existing 5% utility tax to the voters in a Dec. 3 special election based on the recommendation of that committee after the city attorney admitted that the panel met numerous times in violation of California's open meetings law.

Council members, as they took the 3-2 vote, said the election could be scrapped if the city attorney determines that the violations of the law by the council-created Utility Tax Ad Hoc Committee would make the election result vulnerable to a successful legal challenge. The current utility tax expires next July.

City Atty. Francisco Leal said the committee had failed to follow the law by not providing public notice of the meetings and then denying the public the right to attend the sessions--including one Tuesday that brought the problem to light after reporters were denied access.

"This committee was not in compliance with the Ralph M. Brown Act and we ought to be frank about that," Leal said.

He said it would require further legal research to determine the ramification for the council vote, but on its face the council could make its own decision.

The committee recommendation was approved after more than two hours of debate in which a council majority initially expressed concerns over a Dec. 3 ballot given the potential legal problems and seemed to be moving toward combining the vote with next March's City Council election to save the $ 25,000 cost of an extra election.

But a speech by Ted Shaw, former mayor and committee chairman, turned the tide.

"Let the issue alone go directly to the public and let them have an opportunity to vote on it--nothing else--and allow them to look it straight on and not a number of other issues," he said.

Mayor Dorothy Cohen said it was difficult to ignore such advice. "We are dependent on community volunteers to carry out this campaign" she said. "These same community volunteers are the ones telling us to do it in December."

Cohen, council members Wallace Emory and Paul Zee voted for the December election, while council members Dick Richards and Harry Knapp dissented.

Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1996



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