By Mike Sprague, Whittier Daily News
LA HABRA HEIGHTS – The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office accused the City Council of breaking the state’s open-meeting law when on Jan. 2 it met in closed session to approve new language in the ballot title for the anti-oil initiative that was going to the voters in March.
The city had been sued over the wording and two days before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge found the ballot title was misleading.
The council then amended the title in closed session.
That was wrong, said Terrie Tengelsen, deputy district attorney in a letter to the City Council.
“In our opinion, once the City Council decided that the next course of action would be to amend the ballot language, the closed session should have ended with a report out on that action in public session,” Tengelsen wrote.
Amending the ballot language isn’t something that can be done in closed session, he said. The council should have adjourned the meeting and called for a subsequent meeting, he said.
“Instead the City Council circumvented this process by immediately holding its discussion and voting to amend the ballot language in closed session,” he wrote.
Tengelsen said there is no need to fix the situation because the council action was voided when the court struck down the language and approved alternative wording in the ballot title.
Voters defeated the measure in March.
William J. Priest, an attorney for the city, in a letter to the District Attorney’s Office, said the council did nothing wrong.
“Because the court’s ruling was open-ended, the litigation was not yet fully resolved and settlement discussions were ongoing,” Priest wrote.
“The council’s decision could have settled the litigation,” he wrote. “As a public lawyer, I know you understand how prejudicial it might have been to the city’s effort to settle this litigation if the council were required to confer with me in open session regarding the ballot label wording.”
Tengelsen said a month earlier the council dealt with a lawsuit over the same issue but a different part. That time it did everything in public session.
But City Attorney John Brown said the circumstances were different because the council was approving a settlement.
That wasn’t the case at the Jan. 2 meeting, Brown said.
“We had two parties to the litigation who were at great odds over this particular contentious matter,” said Brown referring to Heights Oil Watch, that put the initiative on the ballot and oil companies that were opposing it.
Mike Hughes, president of Heights Oil Watch, said it’s “late in the game” to get the letter but it shows there was a violation.
“It’s typical of the council’s reaction,” Hughes said. “They just ignore us. They have their own agenda.”
This isn’t the first time the District Attorney’s Office has sent a letter to the city, complaining about a violation of the open-meeting act, also known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.
In 2003, City Council members and Planning Commissioners were accused of illegally communicating by email about proposals to revise the general plan.
In 2009, a letter was sent to then-Councilman Howard Vipperman saying an e-mail he sent to then-City Attorney Sandra Levin asking to not take public comments on one agenda item, could have led to a violation of the state’s open-meeting law. Levin rejected his proposal.
In 2013, the Planning Commission was accused of not allowing a resident to speak at a meeting and the council was accused of approving spending by email. On the latter, City Manager Shauna Clark said there was no violation because she approved the spending for a surveillance system at City Hall on her own without council approval.
Source: Whittier Daily News