By Anne Lowe
OPEN MEETINGS A Hercules city-funded public opinion survey about the potential scrapping of a "New Urbanism" development for a train station is catching flack from residents for the clandestine nature in which it was approved.
The surveywhich residents who were contacted described as containing leading questions related to building a train station in a waterfront area of Herculeswas approved by city council members in a closed session that concluded with the mayor announcing there was nothing to report, the Contra Costa Times reports.
City spokeswoman Doreen Mathews said the survey's focus is "not only the Waterfront, but also affordable housing and quality of life issues within the city.
She said the survey questions will not be released until after the data collection work is complete; that is supposed to happen by October 11.
On September 28, the city council, in closed session, approved a $24,500 contract with Strategy Research Institute to "design and administer a scientific survey of registered voters in the City of Hercules." Only two items were on the closed session agenda that day: a performance evaluation of City Manager Nelson Oliva and a conference with legal counsel regarding one case of "significant exposure to litigation."
The survey "was kind of a part of one of the items, Mathews said, specifying "significant exposure to litigation.
Mayor Kris Valstad, emerging from the open session, announced, "at this moment, we do not have any reportable actions."
City Attorney Mick Cabral said Monday that "a contract of this nature need not be announced. He added that it falls into a different category than actions covered by California Government Code Section 54957.1, such as conclusions of labor negotiations and conclusions of settlement agreements.
But Terry Francke, general counsel of the open government advocacy Californians Aware, said, "The reason there is no reportable action is that the Legislature didn't contemplate this kind of thing being in closed session in the first place."
He questioned "why a public opinion survey would need to be part of litigation strategy."
"It is utterly unlawful to put this kind of discussion or decision in closed session," Francke continued. "If I were a resident of Hercules, I'd ask the D.A. to look into it.
I am on vacation out of state until Monday, October 25. Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, has kindly agreed to provide whatever answers he can to callers with questions about open government laws or journalists rights. If you need an answer that cant wait until the 25th, Jim is at (916) 288-6013.