Councilman Keith Bohr contacted four of seven city planning commissioners before they voted on an issue affecting a business, customers and residents in downtown Huntington Beach.
His action has raised questions among some city officials on whether it violated open meeting laws, which prohibit the majority of an elected or appointed board from speaking privately, and without proper notice, about issues affecting the public.
Bohr had a conversation with Planning Commission Chairwoman Barbara Delgleize and members Elizabeth Shier Burnett, Erik Peterson and Timothy Ryan — the majority of the commission — before they voted Jan. 25 on whether Bomburger Restaurant should be allowed to serve beer and wine.
When the four commissioners said during the meeting that they spoke with Bohr, Commissioner Blair Farley asked if that posed any legal issues. But Deputy City Attorney Michael Vigliotta said the meeting could proceed.
Contacted by phone, Bohr refused to comment, demanding that questions be sent to him in writing.
Bohr was sent an e-mail, but did not reply with answers on why he spoke with four of the commissioners. He said there was "too much presumption" and apparent misunderstanding of the Brown Act, California's open meetings laws, in the questions.
"I will pass on any comments for this request," he said. "However, should that action be appealed to the City Council, I will gladly go on the record to explain my concerns about the staff report the Planning Commission received."
City Atty. Jennifer McGrath said she spoke with three of the commissioners and determined that the Brown Act was not violated because there was no exchange of information on how they planned to vote on Bomburger's request.
But it is cause for concern, McGrath said.
"It does risk the potential of a Brown Act violation," she said. "It certainly calls for concern."
McGrath said she plans to hold a Brown Act training session for the new planning commissioners.
Ultimately, the commission voted against allowing Bomburger to serve beer and wine with its burgers. However, three of the four commissioners who spoke with Bohr wanted to allow Bomburger to serve alcohol and voted against denying the permit.
When asked of the nature of Bohr's discussion, Delgleize, who voted to deny Bomburger a permit to serve alcohol, said it included "everything" the commission discussed before voting. Peterson said Bohr just asked him if he got the staff report because he's new to the commission. Before getting appointed to the Planning Commission, Peterson served on the city's Finance Commission and ran for City Council in 2010.
Kim Kramer, spokesman of the Huntington Beach Downtown Residents Assn., which opposed the restaurant's request, said in an e-mail that he questions the morality of trying to influence planning commissioners' votes.
Kramer said on the association's website that Peterson appeared to have changed his mind after speaking with Bohr. Kramer said on the website that during a meeting with Peterson on the Monday before the commission voted on Bomburger's request, Peterson reassured him of his position against allowing any more alcohol licenses in downtown.
Peterson said Wednesday that he just listened to Kramer's concerns and didn't share with him how he felt about Bomburger's request. The commissioner added that he's against more bars in downtown, but believes each issue should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Bomburger applied for the permit in an effort to boost its business. The restaurant, which serves burgers, fries and onion rings, recently added new items to its menu, owner Rob Sleenhof said. He wanted to keep the restaurant's 2 a.m. closing hour but said he would stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m.
Sleenhof's request, however, violated a city resolution that seeks to limit alcohol-related problems in downtown.