Oceano board accused of skirting Brown Act

November 19, 2013

oceanoBy JOSH FRIEDMAN

A government watchdog organization has again accused the Oceano Community Services District Board of Directors of violating California’s open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.

Attorney for Californians Aware Terry Francke authored a letter Friday to recently hired General Manager Lonnie Curtis stating the Oceano board violated the Brown Act by discussing district planning matters during a closed session hearing last week.

The agenda for the November 13 board of directors meeting called for a closed session hearing to discuss Curtis’s performance. However, prior to the meeting, Curtis told CalCoastNews that the closed session item had a different purpose.

“It has to do with setting goals and objectives,” Curtis said.

The day after the meeting, Oceano staff posted a report on the district website of the reportable action taken during closed session.

“BOD discussed future planning for district with GM Curtis including water, sewer and other district business,” the report stated.

Screen-Shot-2013-11-19-at-8.53.27-AM-e1384880193285Yet, a day later the initial report disappeared, and the website has since stated that the board took no reportable action.

When asked, Curtis did not explain why the initial report on closed session disappeared from the website.

To comply with the Brown Act, a government agency must give notice that it is planning to meet in closed session prior to doing so. It must also cite the Brown Act section that exempts it from needing to discuss the matter in an open forum.

The Brown Act exempts agencies from discussing several issues in open session, such as litigation, employee reviews and real estate and labor negotiations. However, general planning pertaining to water, sewer and other agency business is not exempted.

On the November 13 agenda, the district cited section 54957 B1 of the Brown Act as its justification for meeting in closed session. Section 54957 B1 allows boards to meet in closed session to evaluate an employee’s performance, to hear charges brought against an employee, or to appoint, discipline or terminate an employee.

The Brown act stipulates that an agency must limit its discussion and action during a hearing to the item on its agenda.

Francke’s letter demands the Oceano board to cease and desist holding closed session discussions that violate the Brown Act. When a member of the public submits a cease and desist demand pertaining to a Brown Act violation, it triggers a 60-day period for the agency to respond with an unconditional commitment not to repeat the violation, according to Brown Act section 54960.2.

If the board does not respond with an unconditional commitment within the time frame, it is liable for a lawsuit. A response within 30 days would prevent the district from having to pay attorney fees.

Francke is also demanding that the district release all documents produced during or as a result of the planning discussion that is alleged to have occurred in the closed session hearing.

The Oceano board hired Curtis in October to replace former general manager Tom Geaslen. The board fired Geaslen in April after learning that he overpaid himself $45,242 in district funds.

Curtis began work for the district on October 15 and is making $126,000 annually. He is Oceano’s third full-time general manager in less than three years.

 


7 Comments

  1. falconbh says:

    I told myself I was going to take a vacation from the old OCSD. You know give the new [over paid gm] a chance to turn things around. Then I read this article and find myself back and disappointed as a rate payer with a new 30 year loan, on top of my yearly water rate increase, from the same people who want me to Pay a New Fire Tax.

    We keep waiting for the County, The State, or Even the Feds. to step up and just enforce the Rules of Law. I keep feeling like Bell, California each day.

    Julie, and others have it Right. I need to Stop waiting for the system to work and encourage new local community leaders to run for election and Take Back our Community or get a second job to help pay for the new GM Salary, My new loan obligations, Water Rate Increases for infrastructure [sic] increased staff, pensions,benefits, and if we allow it to pass a New Fire Tax !

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

    • Julie says:

      To falconbh and the other few who care about Oceano,

      Today I saw a bit of a backbone in the OCSD that I wish I’d seen many times before. Thanks to the newly appointed, Jennifer Blackburn, (the brightest light in a long time) who did the analysis the GM wouldn’t/couldn’t do to (no staff report) show the rest of the board that the GM was asking for an all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles from December 3-6 for a water conference that has nothing to do with pressing issues in Oceano (leaving Oceano Monday Dec. 2 (right, after a long Thanksgiving weekend). She roughed out the cost being well over $1,700 and showed the board that they had not budgeted for such an expense. If she hadn’t shown them, I don’t think they would have realized it.
      His last minute “staff report” of 19 pages from the Association of California Water website(nothing attached to agenda posting 24 hours prior to the meeting) showed only one days agenda that pertained to Region 5 (our region).
      The board went with Jennifer and voted “no” to approving the expense. Beautiful!

      Sadly, the letter mentioned for today’s Closed Session today (this matter with Cal Aware and the CCN article) had not been presented to the Board. Mr. Curtis received the letter on Monday, much of the Board only got it mid-meeting today. Pathetic, it threatens litigation, a highly pressing matter and he failed to provide it timely? Unacceptable.

      Where’ Donald trump right now? “You’re Fired!”

      My recommendation to those who follow and care about Oceano is to get on the phone and start calling your Board members, they need to hear it from YOU. They do not need a $126K GM that doesn’t know how to run a district. The only people who can make change ore those 5 in sitting at the dais.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

      • falconbh says:

        It is nice to see some financial restraint coming from one board member.

        I do have to admit, I have a big problem with our GM or any employee who wants to spend money on a conference when he has been on the job such a short time!
        It really say’s something about the person himself , his leadership, and his grasp of the financial problems that are gripping the district. We take out a loan one meeting and then want to overspend at the next meeting.

        Can you picture yourself doing that at your job after just getting hired ?

        This is not a good sign for the future of our Community District, that is located in a Low Income Area.

        When do we get to see the Auteristy Budget Plan; that will focus on reducing office staff, pay off the loan quicker, infrastructure improvements, and eliminate the New Fire Tax Proposal.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. Julie says:

    Today (11/22) at 3:30pm the OCSD will have a Special Meeting, including a Closed Session, that they will address the Cease and Desist Demand letter from Cal Aware.

    They have a short business agenda to go through as well. Of course there are no staff reports to read, so the public can’t really tell what the hell they’re doing, nor can the board study the issues (analyze financial impacts of their decisions), but hey that’s how they roll in Oceano.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  3. hijinks2 says:

    Why is anyone surprised? They hired another puppet, with a history of allegations of improprieties in her former position based upon news articles in that region – look it up people! The office manager did her work and weeded out qualified candidates for another puppet that would allow this regime to run amuck for special interest groups! File a complaint with the State Attorney General and see if their office will deal with this garbage!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 2

  4. MaryMalone says:

    Really, this is getting old.

    The only way the OCSD BOD ever changes its ways, and to get it to stop using the Brown Act as toiletpaper, will be to be able to sue the members of the BOD personally.

    The OCSD BOD seems to have zero problems making its water customers pay for their consistent ignoring of the Brown Act. Make the BOD pay personally, and I bet they will change their ways.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 4

  5. Julie says:

    The key to this story is stated here: “PRIOR to the meeting, Curtis told CalCoastNews that the closed session item had a different purpose. “It has to do with setting goals and objectives,” Curtis said.

    Curtis is paid $126,000 a year (or $10,500 per month, plus his $75 cell phone reimbursement and $300 in mileage and 100 percent PERS matching retirement benefits and decent health benefits) (Same as Geaslen, who apparently didn’t think it was enough — he had to take more).

    For that price, paid for by an economically disadvantaged community paying some of the highest prices for water in the county, he should be a “Rock Star” on the Brown Act, Public Records Act, California Water Code, Government Code 61000 and so much more. Curtis should have known that “setting goals and objectives” is not appropriate for Closed Session and recently hired legal counsel and all the board members in attendance should not have let it proceed. Clearly it did happen, as it was posted on the district’s website as such the morning after.

    If there was nothing to hide, then why the change on the website?

    Who is Lonnie R. Curtis? What experience does he have in government? Hasn’t Oceano learned its lesson on hiring private sector guys?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 8

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