Groups accuse Grover Beach of violating state open meeting law

City officials say the state law doesn't apply to a Charter Review Committee

kleslie@thetribunenews.comOctober 22, 2013 

Grover Beach City Hall

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Two advocacy groups are claiming the city of Grover Beach violated the state open meeting law by failing to notify the public of committee meetings to examine drafting a city charter.

The city attorney contends, however, that the charter review committee was not created by the City Council so it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Brown Act.

Under the Brown Act any temporary or permanent committee created by a legislative body such as a city council must hold open meetings that are noticed in advance so the public can attend.

The issue in Grover Beach began in April, when the city council announced its intent to create a charter review committee to once again look into changing Grover Beach from a general law city structured by state law, to a charter city governed by its own charter.

Last November, Grover Beach voters rejected a charter measure.

At its April 1 meeting, the city council “unanimously authorized Councilman Bill Nicolls to meet with City Manager (Bob) Perrault and (former Mayor Steve) Lieberman regarding organizing a charter committee,” according to meeting minutes.

Recommendations regarding the committee were expected to be brought forward at a later date.

Then at a May 6 council meeting, Nicolls and Lieberman gave an oral report regarding “the formation of a Charter Review Committee,” according to meeting minutes. The report detailed the reasons why Grover Beach should pursue becoming a charter city, as well as suggesting residents to recruit for the committee.

The meeting minutes concluded: “Further discussion was held regarding the composition of the advisory committee. It was noted that Mr. Lieberman, Council Member Nicolls and City Manager Perrault would be involved in selecting members to serve on the advisory committee.”

The committee was not mentioned again in any subsequent city council agendas or meeting minutes, and no public notices of any meetings involving the committee were issued.

The committee has met several times, however, which the advocacy groups Smart Cities Prevail and the First Amendment Coalition say is a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act because it failed to issue any public notices or agendas.

Peter Scheer, executive director for First Amendment Coalition — which advocates for more open city government — wrote a letter to the City Council on Oct. 2.

“The committee, like the City Council itself, is required to conduct its business in open, public meetings so that members of the public can observe its deliberations and, to a limited extent, participate in proceedings,” Scheer wrote. “These are rules of participatory democracy in California.”

City Attorney Martin Koczanowicz and Perrault, the city manager, said the Brown Act is not applicable because the charter review committee was not created by the city council but only discussed at a council meeting.

“The citizens’ committee is not a legislative body,” Koczanowicz said Tuesday. “It was not created by the City Council. The Brown Act does not apply.”

"As far as the city is concerned, this is a citizens' committee," Perrault said. "It is no different from any civic group that wants to discuss any city issues."

Perrault said the group was created by Lieberman and Nicolls, who were both very interested in the topic, and features a diverse slice of the community. He said he does not think the group is preventing the public from becoming involved in drafting a charter.

Scheer disagrees: He told The Tribune that even though the City Council did not formally vote to create the committee, its description, function and organization as an advisory body to the council make it subject to the Brown Act.

“I don’t see the Brown Act as so formalistic that you have to utter or write some particular words for it to apply,” Scheer said. “Given the totality of the circumstances … it is clear that this committee is a creature of the council and subject to its will.”

California law requires that if a public body receives a written complaint within 90 days of a suspected Brown Act violation, the body has 30 days to correct the action before legal action can be brought. Scheer said he has not yet received a response to his letter.

Charter Review Committee member Tony Robles has also raised concerns about the review process.

“At that first meeting I thought it was weird we were trying to do this so quickly (after the November election),” Robles said. “And I was wondering why the community wasn’t more involved.”

The committee has been working on a draft of the charter both in meetings and over email, Robles said, though recently they switched exclusively to email.

That tactic also violates the Brown Act, Scheer said, because it precludes the public from being involved.

At Monday’s council meeting, Perrault told the council that he expects to present the charter draft within the next 30 days. Once presented, the council can choose to take action on the charter, at which point the public is required by law to have at least three opportunities to review the charter in public hearings.

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