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Our Opinion: Violating the Brown Act

June 11, 2008 7:33 AM

The inhabitants of Santa Barbara City Hall, on way too many occasions, see themselves as above the rules that everyone else must abide by.

Wendy McCaw Official Site
The city is continuing this practice by allowing deliberations at "lunch sessions" with vague agendas or, in the case of the transportation committee, during the general "comment" section of the agenda.
Mayor Marty Blum has used a city office and city equipment to write a campaign brochure, as well as a political fund-raising letter attacking this newspaper.

Councilwoman Helene Schneider has used her position to conceal her application for a modification permit to enlarge her house.

At least one manager in the city administrator's office last fall used his work time to do political advocacy for a ballot measure while directly overseeing the city's operation of the election.

There's been an ethics free-fall at City Hall. In some cases, city lawyers aren't above warping or misinterpreting rules to try to justify the behavior. A recent attempt by City Attorney Stephen Wiley to have a judge throw out an open-meetings lawsuit filed by the News-Press is one example.

The judge ruled that the newspaper's lawsuit may continue.

There have been a series of lawsuits filed by citizens against the city for breaking environmental and land-use regulations. Santa Barbarans needing to resort to the courts to get the city in line is one legacy of Mrs. Blum's years in office.

Government openness also has reached a new low. There are constant complaints that the city is skirting the state's open-meeting and open-records laws. One case illustrated how city employees actually destroyed documents from planning files after a resident made a request for them.

The newspaper's lawsuit involves the city's Transportation and Circulation Committee and comments regarding the future of De la Guerra Plaza.

The motivation to close De la Guerra Plaza's looped roadway to traffic is to punish the News-Press for opinions that are critical of certain council members and the city administration. The lawsuit details how city officials have tried to bypass the public to push a radical makeover that ignores the plaza's historical uses.

A legal filing notes that only one day after a multitude of local business owners expressed opposition to the city's "plan to close down the auto loop in Plaza de la Guerra which provides customer parking and auto access for their businesses, the Transportation and Circulation Committee and its members broke the law by strategizing how to get the plan approved without providing the mandatory public notice required by the Ralph M. Brown Act."

The genesis of the Brown Act was an investigative report by a state Assembly committee that found "widespread evasion of existing open-meeting statutes" through the use of euphemisms such as executive sessions, conferences, caucuses, and work sessions.

The city is continuing this practice by allowing deliberations at "lunch sessions" with vague agendas or, in the case of the transportation committee, during the general "comment" section of the agenda.

And the city seems to have no intention of changing its ways.

The newspaper's lawsuit notes: "The News-Press tried to resolve this matter informally, but the defendants refused to respond to the News-Press' request or acknowledge that they would refrain from further violations of the Brown Act. Instead of simply agreeing to properly notice future discussions about the Plaza, the defendants . . . act as if they are above the law (and) flaunt their authority."

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