Oceano board accused of skirting Brown Act
November 19, 2013
By 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.
Yet, 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.