Supervisors accused of violating Brown Act
July 17, 2013
By JOSH FRIEDMAN
San Luis Obispo County government watchdogs are accusing the Board of Supervisors of violating California’s Ralph M. Brown Act during a discussion last week on North County water issues that did not appear on the agenda.
At the July 9 Board of Supervisors meeting, about 20 speakers during public comment requested that the board adopt an emergency ordinance restricting water usage in North County. Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who took over the board chairmanship at the beginning of the meeting due to the death of Supervisor Paul Teixeira, then asked the board to discuss the issue.
The board deliberated for nearly 40 minutes and requested staff to expedite its work on crafting an emergency ordinance.
The Brown Act, California’s open meeting law prohibits elected bodies from generally discussing or acting upon items not appearing on the agenda. It does allow boards to direct their staff to place an item discussed by the public on a future agenda. It also allows elected bodies and staff to respond to public testimony, but only in a brief manner.
Following Gibson’s direction to address the water issue, each board member spoke several times, and the board spent about 38 minutes debating approaches to crafting an ordinance.
About 25 minutes into the discussion, Deputy County Counsel Tim McNulty warned Gibson that the board is constrained by the Brown Act.
“We’ve been going on quite a long time on something that’s not on the agenda,” McNulty said.
Gibson said the enormity of the problem called for the board to provide immediate direction to staff.
On Tuesday, several speakers at this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting accused the board of denying public participation in the discussion on the proposed emergency ordinance. While the discussion on the potential emergency ordinance occurred during last week’s public comment period, the supervisors did not provide the public an opportunity to directly address the issue.
“The Brown Act would have fully allowed the public to participate in the decisions and direction that was given to your staff,” said Los Osos resident Julie Tacker.
Following public comment at Tuesday’s meeting, Gibson asked County Counsel Rita Neal to respond to the accusation that the board violated the Brown Act.
Despite McNulty’s warning a week ago, Neal said the board acted within the constraints of the Brown Act by responding to public comment and requesting staff to put an item on a future agenda.
“In our view, there was no violation of the Brown Act,” Neal said. “It was simply a response to a very lengthy public comment, and the item is coming back.”
Neal said the Brown Act allows board members to make brief comments about issues raised during public comment. However, Neal did not say whether or not the response to public testimony met the Brown Act’s definition of “brief.”
“It occurred to me that a substantive discussion of policy had occurred,” county resident Elsa Dawson said during Tuesday’s public comment period. “It seemed to me to be a flagrant ignoring of counsel’s warning.”
Members of the public have a 30-day period following an alleged Brown Act violation to file a cure and correct demand.
The water issue is expected to return to the board on August 6 for the supervisors to discuss possible emergency ordinances.