Advocacy group claims city violated Brown Act

COSTA MESA — Advocates for government transparency have asserted that some of the city's advisory panels violated the state's open meetings law.

The small committees, called "working groups," are supposed to make their recommendations in public council sessions without discussing their findings with council members beforehand. The directives are found in California's open meetings law, the Brown Act.

"The working groups are plainly standing committees, having been given, by title and staff description, as presented for approval, distinct and continuing areas of subject matter jurisdiction," according to a letter Californians Aware attorney Terry Francke sent to the City Council. "Calling such bodies 'working groups' or 'ad hoc' collectives — neither of which expressions appears in the Brown Act — results in no distinction that would dispense with application of that statute."

The Brown Act mandates that legislative bodies post an agenda 72 hours before a public meeting. It also severely restricts what can be discussed outside of public sessions.

The letter names five city working groups: Economic Development; Sports and Recreation; Policies, Procedures and General Plan; Budget and Capital Improvements; and Motel Issues.

The public and city employees have focused their complaints on Mayor Gary Monahan and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer's involvement in the Budget Working Group.

The two-member group has been exploring ways to handle the city's rising pension costs and low investment in capital improvements, among other issues. In February, the pair suggested laying off nearly half the city's workforce, including firefighters, with their positions either being outsourced to private companies or to the county.

Californians Aware received complaints about Costa Mesa from a resident, Francke said.

"It does seem that the layoffs, outsourcing, privatization, or whatever they call it, that that decision was sort of the red flag that led to this concern," he said.

Monahan said the city attorney's office has already explored the complaints.

"At the end of the day, two council members can meet with the city manager, with city staff members anytime you want to, so I'm not sure what they're driving at," he said. "But we'll take another look at it and do whatever the recommendations [from the city attorney] are. If we get a ruling that says there's an issue, we'll fix it."

The letter also reads: "The fact remains that if the group's meetings are private, the public will have no sense (unless it is told) of just what avenues were explored, what options were examined and discounted or discarded, or who met with the group in guiding its inquiries or formulating its proposals.

"The public will be presented with a package to react to, and one with weeks or months of momentum behind it by the time it reaches the council, needing only one of three votes to be approved."

Jennifer Muir, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn. that represents about 200 Costa Mesa workers, applauded Californians Aware.

"I'm really glad there's someone calling out what real transparency will look like," Muir said. "Real transparency would be actually looking at, studying all this stuff before they jam through all this outsourcing."

Francke's letter ends with asking the city's working groups to comply with the Brown Act from here on out, or else Californians Aware will seek a court order to ensure compliance.

City officials said four of the five working groups in question have stopped meeting or never met. The budget working group is expected to present its final report next week.

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