OPEN MEETINGS -- CalAware President Emeritus's Richard McKee's intervention led to the Patterson City Council's acknowledgment this week that it had overstepped the limits of California's open-meeting rules, and a pledge to comply more fully with the law in the future, reports James Leonard in the Patterson Irrigator. McKee expressed admiration for the city attorney's grace under fire.

After learning of potential Brown Act violations by the council from a Nov. 5 Irrigator editorial, (McKee) sent the council a letter outlining those and other violations and demanding four specific changes.

The council acknowledged and agreed to all four:

  • Post special meeting notices that invite people to comment on agenda
    items before or during the council's consideration of those items at
    that special meeting.
  • Announce the "existing facts and circumstances" of anticipated litigation before closed-session discussion, as required by the Brown Act.
  • Announce each council member's vote when reporting action taken in closed session.
  • Post regular meeting agendas that allow for public comment on closed-session items before closed sessions.

�These
omissions were not intentional, but simply an oversight or a
misunderstanding of the correct procedure to follow,� the city said in
a statement Monday, Nov. 9. �These changes have been implemented and
will take effect immediately.�

The
controversy began with an Oct. 26 special meeting that included a
closed-session evaluation of City Manager Cleve Morris. It had been
reported by multiple media outlets that Morris� job might have been in
jeopardy.

More than 100 people attended the meeting in support
of Morris, and several wanted to speak before the council went into
closed session. Instead, the council allowed them to speak only after
the 2�-hour closed session and an announcement that no action had been
taken against Morris.

Also at that meeting, the council voted to
reimburse developer John Ramos for $27,000 in legal fees he incurred
while appealing city staff�s approval of the Del Puerto Health Center�s
move to Keystone Pacific Business Park � a move that was later not
allowed by the City Council. When the vote was announced, the council
did not reveal the vote of each council member. At the Nov. 3 regular
meeting, the council voted to add that information to the minutes from
the special meeting.

City Attorney George Logan argued last week
that because �consideration� of the Morris item was still ongoing � no
action was taken during the closed session, but Morris received
direction on things to improve � the comments allowed after the session
would keep the city in compliance with the law.

Logan later
recommended that the city adopt all of Californians Aware�s demands �
which included allowing comment before closed-session items at all
meetings. However, he emphasized that, at times, the Brown Act allows
for some secrecy.

�We agree with each of the four items (in the
demand letter),� Logan wrote in an e-mailed response. �But we will
reserve the right to protect the city�s interests where necessary and
where permitted by law.�

In
researching violations after the Oct. 26 meeting, . . .  McKee found that in the first 10 months of 2009,
the council had eight special meetings that included only
closed-session items. None of those meeting agendas allowed for public
comment.

McKee also found that the council consistently
conducted closed sessions during regular meetings without allowing
comments beforehand.

Mayor Becky Campo said the council didn�t
do anything particularly different during the Oct. 26 meeting, but the
unusual attention the meeting elicited drew attention to the
violations. She said she takes responsibility for the oversights and
suggested that it might be beneficial for the council to brush up
regularly on the Brown Act.

�We are going to have issues like
this in the future � maybe during my last year in service or for future
councils,� Campo said. �Let this be a learning experience. We should
learn from it.�

Logan, near the end of a somewhat contentious e-mail exchange with McKee, sounded an optimistic tone.

�Your
organization provides an important public service in securing
compliance with the Brown Act,� Logan wrote to McKee. �And I assure
you, the city respects the substance and purpose of the act and � will
err on the side of compliance.�

McKee said that when such
violations are spotted, his group uses a city�s reaction to the
challenges to determine whether they were intentional. He said Logan�s
reaction, along with the city�s promise to make the requested changes,
leads him to believe the breaches were not.

�It is gratifying
to find a city attorney so willing to share his perspectives on
open-government issues,� McKee said. �It is even more pleasing to find
one willing to make changes to better protect the public�s right to be
informed and involved in its city government.�