Commentary: Shine a light on neighborhood task force

The Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force can be a good thing if it brings together neighbors, including the sober-living residents, to find a way to work out problems. Nothing good will come of a task force that is used to divide people as it operates in secret.

Costa Mesa isn't the only city to have issues with sober-living homes. Every city has the same problems. It's all in how you approach them.

Under Mayor Carolyn Cavecche, now president and chief executive officer of OC Taxpayers, the city of Orange reined in the bad operators through an ordinance that requires the operators of homes with six or fewer residents to submit an application to the city, have a current business license and agree to parking, treatment, residency and "good neighbor" standards.

It's an approach that avoids huge legal bills from trying to drive the homes from the city and allows for coexistence when everyone follows the rules.

One of the goals of the Orange ordinance was to avoid neighborhood wars over sober-living homes. Unfortunately, forming a task force to look into sober-living homes has the opposite effect if the task force doesn't work with the public, including the sober-living residents and the owners.

The Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force is exploiting a loophole in the state's opening meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, that allows it to meet in secret, use city resources — including attorneys — and avoid having to publish agendas. The press is not included. There is no stated mission or charge and no cutoff date to end the task force.

This perversion of the Brown Act is allowed by the city attorney because he claims that the task force was not formed by an ordinance or resolution and reports only to Mayor Jim Righeimer, and thus falls outside of the act's purview. In other words, the city attorney found a way for the city to legally have a secret committee that doesn't have to answer to the public.

This task force is not like the town hall meetings I have held. Those meetings were open to the public and the press. This task force is not like the Military Affairs Team, which I am also a part of and which has an agenda and membership open to anyone interested in projects supporting our military.

There can be value in the work of the Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force if the efforts are used to bring people together to find solutions that fix the problems by achieving peaceful neighborhood coexistence. This task force could actually find its way without resorting to litigation if given the right tools and support. Secrecy won't help fix the problem; it only makes it worse.

All residents concerned about this issue should be able to attend any meeting where public resources, city attorneys and staff are being used. Any use of public funds requires transparency and public engagement. Only matters involving personnel, lawsuits and property should be discussed behind closed doors.

The Homeless Task Force is an excellent model to use. Residents were named to the task force. Any resident could attend a meeting and speak during the public comments portion.

The Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force needs to follow the Brown Act and California Public Records Act so the real work of getting back to being good neighbors can begin.

WENDY LEECE is a Costa Mesa councilwoman and a Republican candidate for Congress.

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