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Ampersand sues city, transportation panel: Company cites Brown Act, says Plaza redesign discussed without notice on agenda

February 29, 2008 8:20 AM



The parent company of the Santa Barbara News-Press on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the City of Santa Barbara and its Transportation and Circulation Committee alleging they violated the state's open meetings law by attempting to limit access to proceedings concerning a proposed redesign of Plaza de la Guerra.

The lawsuit, filed by the Santa Barbara law firm Cappello & Noel LLP, on behalf of Ampersand Publishing LLC, alleges that the city council and the Transportation and Circulation Committee, as well as several individual members of the committee, violated California's open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, because the agenda of a Nov. 8, 2007, meeting of the committee did not include the proposed Plaza redesign as an agenda item, but it was nonetheless discussed.

The controversial redesign proposal would close the Plaza to parking and auto traffic while adding amenities such as picnic tables.

Specifically, the lawsuit states that committee member William Boyd "made several recommendations regarding the proposed redevelopment" during an agenda item titled "Committee Member/Subcommittee Comments" and also distributed the recommendations in written form at the Nov. 8 committee meeting.

Additionally, the lawsuit states, committee members David Pritchett and David Tabor, during the ensuing five- to 10-minute discussion, "noted the negative reaction of the public at the library meeting, chalking it down to heavy advertising by Plaza opponents.

"They also discussed ways in which local business opposition could be appeased, and commented that the News-Press should handle its parking needs on its own property."

The Plaza includes several parking spaces that front the News-Press building and are used by people doing business with the paper.

The suit points out that "the News-Press has attended every noticed meeting on the Plaza plan, and strongly disagrees with the TCC's views" concerning Plaza de la Guerra, which is faced by both the News-Press building and City Hall.

"But because the News-Press did not receive notice of this discussion, it was unable to put the record straight. Had it received such notice, it would have attended the meeting; challenged attempts to reallocate parking in other areas as inadequate, challenged the Committee members' characterization of opposition to the Plaza as resulting from heavy advertising; refuted the contention that the News-Press must address parking on its own property; and opposed attempts to get the project approved despite public opposition."

The News-Press sent a letter to City Attorney Steve Wiley complaining of the alleged Brown Act violation and demanding that the committee be notified that it violated the law and that further violations cease and that the city acknowledges the violation's occurrence, but received no reply, the suit states.

"There exists an actual and present controversy between the parties in that the City contends that the TCC may initiate discussions on the Plaza with no further specification on the agenda than 'Committee Member/Subcommittee Comments,' " the suit states. "The News-Press contends there must be specific mention of the Plaza in the agenda so that opponents have fair notice of such discussions and/or actions on the Plaza. As an interested resident and the owner of a parcel adjacent to the disputed property, the News-Press is entitled to a judicial determination of its rights with regard to the above-described meeting."

The paper seeks a declaration that the Nov. 8 discussion of the proposed Plaza de la Guerra redevelopment "was inadequately noticed and that specific notice to the public is required before future similar discussions by the TCC or other City legislative bodies of the Plaza," and "a permanent injunction enjoining defendants from discussing or acting on the Plaza redevelopment without adequate notice," the suit states.

The plaintiff also seeks recovery of reasonable attorney's fees and other costs associated with the lawsuit.

The lawsuit's introduction states that the action against the defendants "seeks to ensure the public a voice in the future of historic Plaza de la Guerra, and the News-Press from unfair targeting by biased city officials."

It also states that Mr. Pritchett has organized rallies against the News-Press and "wants to redevelop the Plaza so as to facilitate more of them" and that Mayor Marty Blum wants the redesign so that she can avoid running into opinion page editor Travis Armstrong in the Plaza.

The suit states that the News-Press "is also concerned that the City is pushing the project," despite widespread public and local business opposition, "to retaliate against it for its outspoken criticism of City Hall."

Mayor Blum disputed any allegation of retaliation on her part.

"I've been elected to represent the people of this city, not to retaliate about something I don't even know what I would be retaliating about," she said. "I have a very busy job and don't spend it plotting to retaliate about something."

As for the allegation that she wants the Plaza redeveloped so that she can avoid Mr. Armstrong, some of whose editorials have been critical of city officials, policies and proposals, including the Plaza de la Guerra redesign, she said she doesn't remember saying it and doubts that she ever did.

"If I did say it, it was a joke, but I don't remember saying anything like that," she said.

Asked for her response to the specific allegation that the Transportation and Circulation Committee violated the Brown Act, she said she wasn't present and didn't know if a legal line was crossed.

"The Brown Act does require that we put things on the agenda that we want to act on, but you can have reports from individual members of the board and commission and it sounds like that's where they talked about (Plaza de la Guerra). I don't know if they went over the line of having to put it on the agenda or not."

A late call to the office of Mr. Wiley, the city attorney, was not immediately returned.

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