The assistant district attorney tasked with judging whether Pacifica Planning Commissioners violated public meeting law last year announced today he was closing his case, and stated that the law was broken.
At a Sept. 19, 2011 meeting, the and voted on issues pertaining to Caltrans' plan to widen Highway 1 that were not on the meeting's agenda.
"It was within this context that the Commissioners' actions violated provisions of Brown Act," wrote Assistant District Attorney Al Serrato in a letter to Mark Stechbart, one of two residents who filed a complaint with the D.A.'s office following the meeting in September.
Stechbart and Jim Wagner, the second resident to file a complaint, claimed that commissioners knowingly violated the law in order to make a jab at Catrans over its plan to widen the highway, .
Some members of the public seemed to believe that no violation had occurred, and voiced their opinions in the comment threads of Pacifica Patch's coverage of the issue.
The Planning Commission officially responded to the allegations, however, when it and testimony made outside the law at the meeting.
The commission also took a one-time city training on public meeting law to better educate itself about what is legal and what is not at a meeting.
These actions, Serrato said, were satisfactory in correcting the violations and demonstrated good-faith effort to abide by the law.
"In taking these steps, the Commissioners corrected the violations and demonstrated a genuine commitment to following open‐meeting laws," he wrote. "As the remedial purposes of the Brown Act havethereby been satisfied, no further action by my office is necessary."
Stechbart, who sent a letter to the Pacifica City Council today asking it to recognize the assistant district attorney's letter at its March 26 meeting, believes that an apology from Planning Commissioner Leo Leon is in order, as Leon played the most active role in Sept. 19's discussion of the highway widening plan.
"Since Mr. Leon had such an active role, he certainly owes Pacifica voters an acknowledgment he was wrong and an apology," Stechbart wrote to the council.
Below is the Assistant District Attorney Al Serrato's letter in its entirety.
Dear Mr. Stechbart,
I have had the opportunity to review the allegations you raised concerning violations of the Brown Act which occurred at the September 19, 2011 meeting of the Pacifica Planning Commission. I have also reviewed the video of that meeting, as well as the agenda for and video of the October 17, 2011 meeting, at which corrective action was taken. I am satisfied from a review of those materials that appropriate action has been taken to remedy the violations, and that additional steps will beundertaken to minimize the likelihood of any future violations. I am therefore closing our inquiry intothe matter.
The overriding purpose of the Brown Act is to ensure public participation in and review of governmental decision‐making. As you correctly noted, discussions occurring at a PlanningCommission meeting that are substantive in nature and which are not on the agenda are, with limited exceptions, prohibited. Commissioners have the right to comment briefly on issues brought to their attention during the public comment portion of meetings. They also have the right to ask the commission staff to take actions in anticipation of future meetings, as well as set agenda items forfuture meetings. It was within this context that the Commissioners' actions violated provisions of Brown Act. However well‐intentioned, a Commission acting in violation of the Act must take steps to "cure and correct" the violations.
At the September 19 meeting, the Commissioners discussed and voted on matters raised during the public comment portion of the meeting, relating to obtaining additional information and extending the deadline for public comment on a matter of current interest. They agreed to seek additional information at a meeting scheduled for October 3 and to agendize the issue for formal action at the meeting scheduled for October 17. However, after being advised that these actions violated the Brown Act, the Council canceled the October 3 meeting. At the October 17 meeting,the Commissioners formally rescinded the actions they took at the September 19 meeting, and declared that any testimony taken at the September 19 meeting was "null and void." The Commissioners noted that the City Council independently addressed the substantive issue regarding extending the time period for public comment on the underlying issue, and that this was done at a duly noticed public meeting. Finally, the Commissioners expressed their commitment to following the provisions of the Brown Act and indicated that they will receive training in that regard. The City Attorney's office has informed me that it will be providing that training.
In taking these steps, the Commissioners corrected the violations and demonstrated a genuine commitment to following open‐meeting laws. As the remedial purposes of the Brown Act have thereby been satisfied, no further action by my office is necessary.
Thank you again for bringing this matter to our attention. By helping to ensure that theactions of local government remain transparent, you provide a valuable, and much appreciated,service.
Albert A. Serrato
Assistant District Attorney
San Mateo County
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