The newly elected City Council says it will hold closed meetings until its members take the oath of office, because county officials have advised them that they are not legally required to meet publicly until then.
But at a meeting Monday night, the council-elect decided it will publicly announce major decisions reached at future private meetings, said Councilman-elect Gary Werner.
“There’s nothing we’re hiding from anybody,” Councilman-elect John Forbing said.
Diamond Bar residents approved cityhood by a 76.2%-23.8% margin on March 7 and selected a five-member council.
As of Monday, the five had held three meetings since the election. Two were open to the public and one was attended by a reporter.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum has directed his staff not to meet with the Diamond Bar council-elect in private.
“Any meeting with the Diamond Bar City Council that involves county personnel has to be open to the press and public or else we will not be involved,” said Judy Hammond, a spokeswoman for Schabarum.
She said Schabarum issued the directive because meetings between the council-elect and the county pertain to public matters, such as the transition of power and possible service contracts with the county.
The supervisor’s order only applies to meetings involving county employees, Hammond said. Schabarum has no control over meetings between council members-elect, she said.
“Yes, we are going to have some meetings that are closed,” said Phyllis Papen, the top vote-getter among 20 council candidates.
“We are acting under the county counsel’s advice,” said Papen. “We went to (the counsel) prior to the meetings to see what the regulations were.”
Exempt From Brown Act
According to Gerald Crump, chief assistant county counsel, pre-incorporation meetings do not fall under the state’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act.
“They are not the city council until such time as the council is formed,” Crump said. “So, we’ve always felt that up until that time the Brown Act doesn’t apply.”
Ruth Benell, executive officer of the Local Agencies Formation Commission, an independent state agency, said that on Election Night, she gave the Diamond Bar council-elect the same advice. She said she told them that they will function as private citizens until they are sworn in at the first official council meeting, tentatively scheduled for mid- to late April.
A city must incorporate within one year after voters approve cityhood. Most cities formed between 1981 and 1984, such as West Hollywood, Agoura Hills, and Westlake Village, took four to six weeks to complete the process of incorporation, officials said.
Not Official Yet
Between the election and formal incorporation, the council-elect has no public money to spend because the council does not officially exist. But the council can make interim decisions that have potential financial consequences.
Before incorporation becomes official, councils-elect usually select an interim city manager and city attorney and work with county officials on the transition of power, said David Estrada, city-county liaison for the county’s chief administrative office.
The Brown Act has “never become an issue in any of the other incorporations” in the county, said Benell, who has assisted with 15 to 20 city incorporations. Diamond Bar is the 86th city in Los Angeles County to be incorporated.
The open-meetings issue is “being blown out of proportion,” said Councilman-elect Forbing.
Need for Frankness
“The reason we chose to have the first meeting in private is because we felt the need to work out some relationships and decide where we’re going,” Forbing said. He said members needed to speak frankly.
The day after the election four of the five met, but only to get acquainted and to discuss election results, Papen said.
At a second meeting last Thursday, the five discussed arrangements for the city’s official incorporation. At that meeting, the council-elect allowed a reporter from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune to sit in, but the reporter agreed to step out while members selected Papen as mayor and Paul Horcher, second-place finisher in the council race, as mayor pro tem.
“These are not official acts,” Benell said. “They can change that (decision) tomorrow.”
Forbing said Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) publicly announced the mayor and mayor pro tem selections at the Miss Diamond Bar pageant last Friday.
The council-elect also held a closed meeting to interview candidates for an interim city manager’s position.