Laguna Beach City Council censures George Weiss for disclosure of confidential information

Laguna Beach City Councilman George Weiss.
Laguna Beach City Councilman George Weiss was censured on Tuesday night for the disclosure of confidential information from a closed session meeting concerning renovations at the Hotel Laguna.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Having learned confidential information from a June closed session meeting had been leaked, the Laguna Beach City Council voted Tuesday night to censure the source of the breach, Councilman George Weiss.

Mayor Bob Whalen brought the matter to his council colleagues after it was revealed Weiss and Councilwoman Toni Iseman had attended a meeting at which details of a closed session meeting of the City Council held on June 29 pertaining to renovations at the Hotel Laguna were discussed.

Phil Kohn, the city attorney, affirmed at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing that it was his view that the council’s June closed session was convened under permissible exceptions provided in the Brown Act. He said that he felt that no action in the closed session meeting was required to be reported.

The censure request made by Whalen had relied on public testimony by Mark Fudge, who had shared in public communications that Weiss, Iseman and former mayor Paul Freeman were among those at a meeting at his office on July 1 where the confidential information regarding the Hotel Laguna had been leaked.

Iseman attested that while she went to the meeting at Fudge’s office, she did not disclose anything confidential. She said that her intent in attending the meeting was to gather more information.

Upon hearing her remarks, Whalen decided to withdraw Iseman’s name from the censure request. But throughout the proceedings, Iseman did not back down from her belief that the closed session had been improper.

“It was an illegal closed session, and to the extent that the council took votes in that session, those votes are illegal,” Iseman said. “The city attorney reported at the beginning of the public meeting that no action was taken. I think that’s a false report because there was action taken. The City Council and the staff gave the green light to the Hotel Laguna to move forward without going through proper city channels — not through the planning commission and in avoidance of the orders and rulings of the Coastal Commission.”

Weiss did not deny that he had shared confidential information out of closed session. His views on how to address the issues arising from the closed session meeting differed from the mayor’s.

“There needs to be greater transparency in open council sessions with the public so that agenda items aren’t secreted away in closed sessions that fail to make the Brown Act criteria of closed sessions,” Weiss said. “Second, there needs to be an equal treatment of all businesses and residents in Laguna Beach, not exceptions made for one development without the public’s input.”

The city attorney explained the options available to a council member who believes a closed session meeting is not warranted.

“A council member should leave the room if he or she honestly believes that an illegal closed session is taking place,” Kohn said. “While a council member may express an opinion that a closed session was conducted unlawfully, that does not provide the opportunity to disclose the confidential information that was communicated during that closed session.

“Rather, if confidential information is to be disclosed without the authorization of the city council, the Brown Act provides a remedy for a complaint to be made by that council member to the district attorney or the grand jury, who then may consider and take such action, if any, they believe to be appropriate.”

Councilman Peter Blake, who was censured by the City Council in March for violations of Laguna Beach’s rules of decorum and civility policy, favored censuring both Iseman and Weiss.

Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf said the council members should follow proper channels if they are uncomfortable about participating in a closed session.

“You can’t just tell anybody anything out of closed session,” Kempf said. “You can’t say anything. You can’t tell an adversary. You can’t tell an opponent. You can’t tell someone that may share some point of view with you. You’re just not allowed to do that.”

Laguna Beach City Council members Toni Iseman and George Weiss face censure on Tuesday for the disclosure of information from a closed session meeting that took place on June 29.

Nearly 30 members of the public weighed in to express their views on the validity of the censure hearing. The bulk of the speakers opposed the censure, pointing to issues such as transparency and some even levying allegations of retaliation.

In his public comments, resident Alan Boinus included a political cartoon that showed the Hotel Laguna with an overhang sign above the entrance that said, “Closed: Except for Bob, Sue and Peter.”

There were also several who voiced their support for the censure.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with the Hotel Laguna or any decisions or things that were discussed in closed session,” resident Jan Hobbs said. “This has to do with council members’ responsibility not to divulge that information to the public. This is not a whistleblower situation. That would mean you quietly go to a higher authority and expose something.

“They didn’t take it to the city attorney. As our city attorney just described, there’s a process that they could have walked through.”

The vote to censure Weiss carried 3-2, with Iseman and Weiss dissenting.

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