Oceano district warned over alleged violations of open-meeting law

Advocacy group threatens possible legal action over public comments, closed-session

clambert@thetribunenews.comFebruary 21, 2012 

The Oceano Community Services District has been warned that it could face litigation unless district officials correct alleged breaches of the state’s open-meeting law.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the open government advocacy group Californians Aware, cautioned Monday that the district’s handling of public comments during a Feb. 8 meeting is not compliant with the Ralph M. Brown Act.

The board may have also violated the Brown Act when it approved a 29 percent pay increase during closed session for Tom Geaslen, who has served as the district’s interim general manager since June. While the district board can discuss compensation of employees in closed session if the item is properly noticed, final action must be taken during open session, Francke said.

Geaslen said he spoke to Francke on Tuesday and would review the board meeting tape.

“If we are making a mistake, I will get it corrected,” he said. “We’ve never discouraged anybody from making a comment.”

Francke’s email to the district was in response to concerns raised by one attendee at the Oceano board’s Feb. 8 meeting, when members of the public were asked to give comments on scheduled agenda items before district staff presented a report.

But requiring public comment to take place before a staff report denies members of the public the opportunity to respond to information presented during the report, Francke said.

The Brown Act requires public comment to be permitted “before or during” a legislative body’s consideration of an item. It also requires that the agency’s regulation toward public comments be “reasonable.”

“Giving people their only opportunity to comment on an agenda item before anyone has heard what the proponent says by way of introduction is not reasonable,” Francke said. “There may well be some specific things that the staff or someone else says in making the presentation that you’re hearing for the first time, and you want time to react to it.”

Los Osos resident Julie Tacker attended the Feb. 8 meeting and was “shocked” when her name was called before a staff report was given. She emailed Francke her concerns the following day.

Board Chair Matt Guerrero said the format to allow public comment before staff presentations has been in place for as long as he’s been on the board.

“If there’s a problem with that … we’ll correct our procedure,” he said.

Francke said he would wait for a response from the district before taking any other action. His email to Geaslen notes that unless the board abandons this practice, he may recommend an action be filed, plus award of costs and attorney fees.

Closed session concerns

In a separate letter to the Oceano district, San Luis Obispo resident Kevin P. Rice demanded the district “cure and correct” its action taken in closed session Feb. 8, when the board reported it voted to increase Geaslen’s pay to $10,000 a month from $7,750.

Geaslen works on a set monthly fee as a consultant and does not take medical or retirement benefits.

The Brown Act stipulates that final action on compensation for employees, including independent contractors, must be taken in open session. Geaslen said the board’s attorney, Molly Thurmond, is reviewing whether the board’s action needs to be remedied.

Also, the board’s closed-session agenda only listed a “public employee appointment” and should have listed a separate item on its agenda indicating a discussion on Geaslen’s compensation, Rice stated in his demand.

The increase that was approved Feb. 8 is retroactive to Jan. 1. The board at today’s meeting is scheduled to consider paying Geaslen $3,375 to cover the time period from Jan. 1 through Feb. 15.

The board also approved a new contract through June 30, at which point it could consider making Geaslen a full-time employee or possibly seek outside applicants for the position.

Since he was appointed, Geaslen has worked toward goals of completing overdue audits, finalizing an annual budget and managing smaller issues, such as auditing water and sewer accounts to make sure customers are properly billed.

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