Lobdell: New council era has shaky start

Well, the political honeymoon didn't last long in Costa Mesa.

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece has asked the city attorney for help in pursuing a Brown Act violation against three of her council colleagues.

The Brown Act is state law designed to prevent elected and government officials from conducting the public's business in secret.

In an e-mail sent late Wednesday to City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow, Leece said decisions at Tuesday's council meeting to elect Gary Monahan as mayor and Jim Righeimer as mayor pro tem appeared to be "pre-arranged." Councilman Eric Bever voted along with Righeimer and Monahan on the items.

"There were no surprises when Mr. Monahan was nominated," Leece wrote. "No hesitations. Same with when Mr. Righeimer was nominated. Everything [went] … as planned.

"I believe they have had the plan some time ago. This was evident to many people. Many people have commented about this to me.

"I suspect that this is going to be a pattern in the future with these council members and I want to put them on notice that this is wrong and illegal.

"This is not good for the city to allow [a] violation of the Brown Act — or even the PERCEPTION of a pre-arranged vote — and backroom discussions on agenda items."

The potential Brown Act violation is what's termed a "serial meeting," which happens when council member A privately talks with council member B, who talks with council member C about an agenda item — in this case, selecting a mayor or mayor pro tem.

New Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer told me he followed the Brown Act, only indicating to Monahan that he would be willing to serve as mayor pro tem. He also said that both Monahan and Bever indicated that they would be willing to serve as mayor. At no time, Righeimer said, was the vote for the two posts preordained.

Leece was not contacted and didn't contact Righeimer.

Serial meetings — especially for minor issues like ceremonial mayoral posts — can be commonplace in local politics, but they are still illegal acts.

"Rounding up the votes behind the scenes is an actionable Brown Act violation," said Terry Francke, a Brown Act expert and general counsel for California Aware, a nonprofit that advocates open government.

Because the alleged violation involved the selection of two ceremonial posts, it won't get the attention of the Orange County district attorney. But if Leece pursued it in civil court, a judge could void the vote.

But if Leece were victorious, the win would be short-lived because the vote for mayor and mayor pro tem would just be retaken, with probably the same outcome.

As Francke said, "The council could come back and say, 'OK, our bad. Now let's vote again for mayor,' and the result would be the same."

Last year, a Menlo Park council member, Kelly Fergusson, said she may have accidently violated the Brown Act when lobbying for the mayoral post and asked that the vote to have her serve as mayor be voided.

"If there was a violation, it was not intentional. I believed I was lobbying or stating my position to inform members of the council, and to gain their support," she wrote in a public e-mail. "… I take full responsibility for my actions. I will be extremely careful regarding the Brown Act in the future, recognizing that it may apply to campaigning as well as regular council issues. To emphasize my commitment and deepen my understanding, I am signing up for a Brown Act training course.

"Per the terms of the Brown Act, a 'Cure and Correct' action will be put on the agenda for a special City Council meeting very soon, wherein the previous action is voided, nominations are re-opened, and the vote is retaken. This will occur for both mayor and vice mayor."

Fergusson was elected as mayor on a revote.

As someone who's covered local politics for two decades, I'm realistic enough to know that local elected officials use a lot of winks and nods to get around the Brown Act, whether giving a pretense for going into an illegal closed session or conducting a serial meeting to forge a consensus before a public meeting.

And the day it doesn't drive me crazy is the day I retire as a journalist. That said, I'm guessing that Righeimer and Monahan are smart enough to legally work around the edges of open-meeting laws. I have no doubt they knew how the votes for mayor and mayor pro tem would go down. But I also would bet that they didn't break the law.

Leece's salvo does serve a concrete purpose. It puts the council majority on notice that she will serve as the public's watchdog to make sure the public's business is done in public. That's not a bad thing.

Tuesday night's vote for mayor and vice mayor — which came off as ham-handed — rubbed the community the wrong way. It wasn't just the moans and groans heard in the Council Chambers, but the complaints heard around town since then.

Leece is right in that perceptions do matter, and it wasn't the best start for the so-called Righeimer Era (by the way, are Bever and Monahan upset at how local pundits have basically crowned Righeimer the town's political king after just one meeting?).

But with the honeymoon over, now the council can get down to business. We'll all be watching.

WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

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