After an outcry from residents that they were left out of the process and a strong suggestion from county counsel, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to revisit its March 7 vote to take over groundwater management in unincorporated areas at a cost of at least $1.6 million a year.
The board also unanimously voted to discuss in the future whether to refer an allegation of a potential violation of the state open meetings law — known as the Ralph M. Brown Act — to the county District Attorney’s office for review. Supervisor Debbie Arnold denied the allegation that three supervisors had illegally engaged in a serial meeting.
Both items will be heard at the April 4 board meeting.
The votes came after about 10 people complained both about the policy change, which would shift the costs to create plans for managing specific groundwater basins from basin water users to the entire county, as well as the board’s process that some see as violating the Brown Act.
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“The 3-2 vote on March 7 to shift the cost of water management from users to countywide taxpayers at a cost of up to $6.6 million for up to three years was made without prior public notice or a public hearing,” Sydnee Raphael, a North County resident, told the supervisors. “This violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Brown Act.”
The vote to change county policy happened during a discussion of the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act — or SGMA — which requires stakeholders in basins in overdraft to create plans to stabilize them or the state will step in. The item had been listed on the agenda as “receive and file” and did not specify that action might be taken. In general, the Brown Act requires government bodies to give the public adequate and accurate notice about agenda items.
On Tuesday, county Counsel Rita Neal told the board and the audience that at the time of the March 7 meeting she “made a judgment call” that the vote complied with the Brown Act and that the decision is legally defensible.
“Having said that, I think it’s my duty as your county counsel to provide you options and a path forward to avoid unnecessary use of resources,” Neal said. “Litigation is uncertain, it’s costly, and it takes a lot of time. I strongly suggest this board agendize the item of SGMA strategy with regard to financial considerations and governance issues, and that will allow the board and public to be fully noticed on the issues and to give whatever input they think is necessary.”
Two First Amendment attorneys told The Tribune last week that the board’s action appeared to be a Brown Act violation because the public would not have known from the agenda item that a policy change was going to be considered and voted on.
A second allegation of a Brown Act violation was raised by Paso Robles resident Laurie Gage when she forwarded a letter from Creston resident Greg Grewal that she said contained evidence that three supervisors engaged in a serial meeting.
The Brown Act bars three or more supervisors from communicating together or sequentially — defined as a “serial meeting” — about county business outside of a publicly noticed meeting. Any three supervisors also are banned from communicating about their intentions regarding an issue through an intermediary, in what is considered a “hub and spoke” meeting.
An investigation by The Tribune found no evidence that a serial meeting occurred.
On Tuesday, Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill said the allegation was serious enough to merit a review by the county District Attorney’s Office.
“We need to have an investigation into whether this board’s majority is acting in collusion and violating the serial meetings act in order to get its agenda passed,” Hill said.
Gibson agreed and said that while he was not sure that a serial meeting occurred, “I think its in the best interest of the board and a matter of public trust that we do such an investigation.”
Gibson initially made a motion to send the issue to the district attorney for review, but the county attorney cautioned that a vote could violate the Brown Act because the item was not on the agenda. Gibson altered his motion, and the board unanimously agreed to place the discussion on a future agenda.
Gage said the Jan. 27 letter signed by Grewal showed circumstantial evidence that Supervisors Debbie Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong may have violated the law by “developing a common and agreed-to change” to the county’s strategy regarding SGMA “without public input or notice.”
She points to the fourth page of the letter that says, “After various conversations with the current BOS supervisors (confidentially) they are going to declare the county the GSA (with regards to SGMA.) This action is to happen in the immediate future. They have no intentions of charging extra fees.”
In an interview with The Tribune last week, Grewal said he didn’t have any inside information and that it was common knowledge that the board majority was going to change direction after Peschong’s election in November.
“I don’t know more than anybody else if they were paying attention,” Grewal said.
He said he didn’t facilitate a serial meeting and he has never met with Compton.
Compton said the same thing Monday.
“I have not talked to Mr. Grewal about any water issues,” Compton said. “Even if he did talk to two other supervisors, he did not talk to me about it so it wouldn’t have been he talked to a majority.”
Grewal is Arnold’s appointee to the county Water Resources Advisory Committee. The letter, which he says was typed by his daughter, contains information about SGMA and appears to be an attempt to persuade a landowner not to join a small water district now being formed in the North County.