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Pacifica City Council Candidates Comment on the Brown Act

Pacifica Patch readers wanted more information on Pacifica City Council candidate's knowledge and commitment to the Brown Act, so here it is.

Over the past couple of weeks, Pacifica Patch has fielded a number of requests from readers wanting to find out more about each Pacifica City Council candidate, specifically in regards to their knowledge and commitment to the Brown Act in light of local elected officials holding closed-door meetings and current Councilmembers recently pushing for the release of a police outsourcing document.

Here at Patch we value your input and what you have to say about your community, so on your behalf, we asked each Pacifica City Council candidate to address the issue by answering these two questions:

1) What is your knowledge of the Brown Act and how committed are you to enforcing its provisions?

2) What would your reaction be if a city attorney told you, as a councilperson, that meeting in closed session with a consultant was legal?

So far, four of the seven Pacifica City Council candidates we asked have responded. Here's what they have to say:

Karen Ervin, Pacifica City Council candidate, 4-year term

During my tenure on the Pacifica School District Governing Board, and currently on the Financing City Services Task Force I have been fully committed to upholding the Brown Act, a very important piece of legislation. The Brown Act states that, “All meetings of the legislative body of a local agency shall be open and public, and all persons shall be permitted to attending meetings of the legislative body of a local agency, except as otherwise provided in the chapter.” The most common purpose of a closed session is to avoid the release of confidential information that may affect an agency’s legal or negotiating position or an employee’s privacy. When considering whether an issue is to be heard in closed session, it is always important to keep in mind that secrecy breeds distrust, and whenever possible, issues should be discussed openly and publicly. The best practice would be to seek legal counsel with the city attorney before placing specific items on the agenda for closed session. The City Attorney is a primary resource for understanding compliance with City, State, and Federal laws including the Brown Act. I would seek legal advice from the City Attorney and if I remained skeptical about the advice I would ask for additional information regarding the issue. It is also understood that only the legislative body acting as a body can agree to disclose confidential closed session information.

Mike O’Neill, Pacifica City Council candidate, 2-year term

The Brown Act is a California law passed by the State Legislature to foster open government. One of the key ways the Brown Act is enforced is with the body itself self-policing themselves. Only the members of the Board or Council knows what is being discussed in closed session and each member should know   It specifically states by law what is exempt from the Brown Act, meaning items that can be discussed in closed session.  Included in the Brown Act are rules relating to Agenda, when decisions can be made, discussions between Board/Council member and meeting requirements for public agencies.

The Brown Act is an important piece of legislation. It is a big deal and the San Mateo County District Attorney recently ruled there was a violation of the Act by the Pacifica Planning Commission. The Pacifica Planning Commission after being advised by staff that the Brown Act was violated continued the discussion and even voted on the non-agenda items.  The San Mateo County District Attorney found there was a violation.  One of the commissioners even said he thought it was no big deal. It is a BIG DEAL and public trust is a fragile thing that is easily lost and not easily regained.

From the information that I have available the current questions about the outsourcing report should be made public. It should therefore be made public and become a part of the public record. Full disclosure is what the citizens of Pacifica deserve and are owed. 

Victor Spano, Pacifica City Council candidate, 2-year term

Having worked in local government for many years, attending Council meetings and participating in Pacifica's Economic Development Committee, I have had exposure to and a general understanding of the Brown Act. In light of local and recent controversies within the City Council and Planning Commission pertaining to the Brown Act, I sought out resources on the topic, which would provide a framework leading to a deeper understanding. The clear and concise San Mateo County Office of County Counsel Publication entitled: "Summary of the Brown Act" is an valuable resource and provides to the reader "The Brown Act"..."at a glance."    

I would want to review the statute to see if the City Attorney's interpretation conformed or not in the particular situation at hand. This law provides a listing of situations where closed sessions are permissible. Nonetheless, in certain situations, there may be areas where a judgment call by the City Attorney might be made. We should be most careful in these situations. When in doubt, get a second opinion. If two attorneys agreed that meeting in closed session with consultant was legal, there would be a comfort level for the Council that it probably was, however, if there was no such agreement, by all means, the Council should not hold such a closed session. The City Council could potentially seek advice from an attorney demonstrating qualifications as a "Brown Act Expert" to advise in and on questionable Brown Act situations;  furthermore, Council members and others could possibly attend seminars on the Brown Act. I googled up an example of such a seminar. I suggested previously, on Patch, that an Open Government Committee, along the lines of the Open Government Committee established in Seattle, Washington, be established here in Pacifica to look for ways to improve transparency. I would take the lead on the establishment of such a committee if elected. All of the above would be steps on the long road to rebuilding confidence.        

Gary Mondfrans, Pacifica City Council candidate, 2-year term

Going well back to my service as Mayor of San Bruno I was committed to the open government provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act was has been part of California State Law going back to 1953. The Brown Act assures that the public's business will be conducted in public, with adequate notice of what is under consideration by public bodies such as the Pacifica City Council and Planning Commission, and to provide for full public participation in such meetings. Quit frankly, I am quite disturbed that both the Pacifica Planning Commission and even recently, the Pacifica City Council, have committed themselves to a course of action, which was not conducted in public. Moreover vitally important public documents have been kept from the public, and I have voiced my concerns to the District Attorney's Office. In any given situation if the City Attorney advised me as a councilman that a closed session with a consultant was legal, and I felt that it was not, I would trust my own judgment and not attend nor participate in what I regard as an illegal action contrary to the people's interest.

Tell us what you think. Do think any one of these candidates has what it takes to uphold the Brown Act and keep Pacifica from going bankrupt?

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Lionel Emde September 19, 2012 at 03:28 PM
Thank you Pacifica Patch, for asking the candidates about this issue. There is a related issue that needs discussing as well: The Public Records Act is being violated by the use of a slimy strategy to conceal the consultant's report on the possible police outsourcing. Because the city attorney "hired" the consultant, all of a sudden, an alleged "attorney-client" relationship has been created between the city attorney and the city, thereby allowing the city attorney to blow off citizens who want these public documents released to them. Here's the beauty of that strategy, at least from an unethical city attorney's viewpoint: The PRA is governed by civil law and therefore the DA's office cannot force release of the documents to the public, no matter what violations of the Brown Act they may find. A citizen would have to go to court and sue the city in an attempt to get a judge to agree that the concealment of the docs was a violation of the PRA, and of course, who's got the money to do that? Pretty neat, huh? This strategy is being used by other public agencies in CA to conceal docs from the public, and it is very calculated. When the election is over, and we have three new council members, one of their first acts in order to restore public trust should be to show Ms. Kenyon and Mr. Rhodes the door and conduct a search for a new contract city attorney and city manager.
Ben Thare September 19, 2012 at 06:02 PM
Re. Lionel Emde's comment: No one was more of a proponent of "closed door" policies and opaque government than ex City Attorney Cecila Quick (who served Pacifica for 15+ years). And no one had such a complete disregard for the Brown Act than CA Quick. Yet Mr. Emde never complained about the dozens, if not hundreds of times she thumbed her nose at the PRA. Why, you ask? Because her no growth agenda and promulgations were completely consistent with that of Mr. Emde. Now that he is on the other side, well...
Lionel Emde September 20, 2012 at 01:30 AM
Actually Ben, you're wrong about that. When the Coastside Scavenger/Recology debacle happened in 2009-2010, Ms. Quick was the city attorney, and I screamed plenty loudly about the lack of public process and the backroom dealing. I even ended up litigating against the city over the lack of Prop 218 noticing of the public for the all-too-frequent rate increases we are suffering. I have gotten the sense that there has been plenty of backroom governing going on in Pacifica since July 2007, when former finance director Maureen Lennon was forced out and Mr. Rhodes became city manager. But, unlike yourself, I have to have evidence to go forward with a complaint. This affair over the police outsourcing is, on its face, illegal in several aspects. The posting of the meeting of July 11, the lack of posting on the city's Web site, the lack of noticing that a consultant's report would be discussed, and the possible illegality of a decision on a public policy issue done behing closed doors by unknown parties, all these things point to the backroom, bigtime. Try getting your history straight before inserting foot in mouth, "Ben."
theresedyer1932@gmail.com September 21, 2012 at 08:12 PM
I currently have a claim against the Mayor Pete De Jarnatt for violating my civil rights by telling ne to be quiet when I asked a question under public comment. The ACLU says I have an actionable case and are looking into with additional info I sent them regarding the Brown Act. Therese
Murray Cherkas October 19, 2012 at 01:23 AM
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