Garth Stapley reports for the Modesto Bee that Stanislaus County's nine mayors have been breaking the law by informally gathering to plan a countywide growth initiative, according to Californians Aware's general counsel.

The mayors' leader contends that the group is doing its best to come up with unique solutions to broad problems and never meant to ignore legal requirements for developing policy.The mayors must stop chatting behind closed doors and begin complying with the Brown Act, including posting notices of future meetings, printing agendas and allowing anyone to attend, Terry Francke wrote in a letter dated Monday. He also demanded that the mayors release all e-mails and other documents related to past meetings for public inspection.

If ignored, Francke could pursue a lawsuit through Californians Aware, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government, he wrote. He is the organization's attorney.

"This isn't about a moral failing; it's about acceptable, lawful procedure in reaching (government) decisions," Francke said Tuesday.

Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño said questions of the group's legality have not come up since she became mayor more than two years ago. She recently was chosen among the nine mayors to lead the group because its initial chairman, former Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, was termed out and replaced last week.

"It's more of a social gathering and opportunity to check in with each other," Madueño said. "It's a support system. We're there to brainstorm. It's more of a casual conversation."

Some openness, but not always

Reporters and other members of the public have been permitted to attend parts of mayors' meetings, but not all. For example, The Bee observed an open discussion at Turlock City Hall in November but was excluded when the mayors went to a restaurant afterward to continue their meeting.

"I can tell you, the mayors' committee is good for the community," Madueño said. "We are not there to set policy among ourselves but to engage in fruitful dialogue on how to collaborate, and we report back to our councils. If we can work together, it's a win for the community."

Francke's letter went to the Stanislaus Council of Governments because that agency is charged with regional growth and transportation planning. Bylaws for its policy board, composed of 16 elected leaders throughout the county, appear to prohibit nonpublic meetings of a quorum, or a majority of members.

Not all mayors are currently listed on StanCOG's policy board, but at least six have participated in recent months: Madueño, Ridenour, Charlie Goeken (Waterford), Ed Katen (Newman), Pat Paul (Oakdale) and Luis Molina (Patterson). They represent more than half of the agencies involved in StanCOG, composed of the county and its nine cities.

"If they're talking about something that StanCOG's policy board has authority to deal with, then they are acting as a virtual quorum," Francke said.

The mayors have not cast the product of their huddles as StanCOG issues. StanCOG Executive Director Vince Harris said Tuesday that he had not received Francke's letter and refused to comment on the mayors assuming part of StanCOG's role.

Although meeting privately, the mayors have said their goal is a very public decision on growth by all voters throughout the county. They have asked each city to publicly develop boundaries beyond which cities could not grow before 2050, for a ballot initiative this year or next.

Some cooperation

Seven of the nine complied; Oakdale and Patterson initially balked, but may revisit the issue.

"It irks me that the entire county's mayorship is conducting business like this," said Patterson Councilwoman Annette Smith. "They should know better."

Attorney Rod Attebery, who represents StanCOG, said, "Obviously, the mayors group is not a StanCOG group. It would not be appropriate for me to comment until I've had an opportunity to look at the letter."

Madueño said, "I'm all for process and adhering to rules, but until somebody tells me we're doing something wrong, I think we should not stop (meeting)."

The mayors' end, laudable as it may be, does not justify any means under state law requiring openness, Francke said. "(The mayors) are not secretive about their product," he acknowledged. However, "if that were a sufficient standard, there would not be a Brown Act at all."