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OPINION: Travis Armstrong : City breaks open meeting law, then tries to spin it

October 29, 2008 12:00 AM

Wendy McCaw Official Site
First the good news: The News-Press has won its case charging that the city of Santa Barbara violated the state's open meeting laws.

The lawsuit involved the city's Transportation and Circulation Committee and comments regarding De la Guerra Plaza. The lawsuit detailed how city officials in November 2007 tried to bypass the public to push an extreme makeover of the plaza.

The News-Press building sits at one end of the plaza. As previously noted, 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.

One of the newspaper's legal filings noted that only one day after many local businesses expressed opposition to the "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."

Committee member William Boyd made recommendations regarding the proposed redevelopment. Committee members David Pritchett and David Tabor, during a 5- to 10-minute discussion, noted the negative reaction of the public at the meeting the day before. The lawsuit stated how "they also discussed ways in which local business opposition could be appeased."

Mr. Pritchett has a reputation of trying to ingratiate himself with officeholders and others in power. Now Mr. Pritchett and these other committee members are on record, according to this legal judgment, as violating the state's open meeting and good government regulations.

Now the bad news: The city's spin machine is trying to downplay the judgment. A city press release uses words such as "inadvertent" and "innocent" to describe what happened.

The truth is, News-Press management refused to sign off on a "settlement" in this case. Instead, this is a formal legal judgment against the city. Among other things, this means a judge will retain jurisdiction in case more such violations do occur. The city lost. It's on notice regarding any future misconduct.

News-Press attorneys also refused to agree to any judgment that characterized this Brown Act violation as just a mistake.

City Attorney Steve Wiley knows that.

It's disappointing that Mr. Wiley continues to act more as a public relations agent for the City Council rather than a tell-it-as-it-is legal counsel working on the behalf of all Santa Barbarans. Our city deserves better.

Watch this space for more to come.

The News-Press possesses thousands of pages of documents that the city had to produce in this lawsuit.

Some of them, for example, appear to suggest Mr. Pritchett joked about committing another violation of state law. That's more indefensible behavior.

In future columns, I'll share more of the details in these documents. They contain revelations about how the city works internally. The sunshine put on them might be good disinfectant for City Hall.

AM 1290: Please tune in to AM 1290 at 10 this morning to hear Joe Armendariz discuss why he's running for a second term on the Carpinteria City Council.

State Senate candidate Tony Strickland is scheduled to call in during part of the program.

The program will repeat at 8 tonight and at 10 a.m. Sunday.

Travis Armstrong is the editorial page editor of the News-Press.

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