Oceano accused of Brown Act violations
February 21, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Oceano Community Service District Board members and administrative staff have been handed two threats of litigation because of alleged violations of open meetings laws that protect public access to information and participation.
Several critics have filed or voiced complaints about Oceano’s apparent ongoing disregard for the Ralph M. Brown Act and now the state’s leading authority on open meeting laws has warned district officials that they need to follow the law or face litigation.
The charges claim, among other things, that the board requires the public to comment on board items that have not been explained in the agenda and before the staff report leaving the public at a disadvantage.
“We are confident that a court would find that a rule forcing citizens to address the board on an agenda item before it is given its explanatory introduction by the staff member or other person presenting it is not ‘reasonable’ within the meaning of the Brown Act,” said Terry Francke, the director of CalAware and arguably the foremost authority on the Brown Act. “This practice does not permit an informed comment to the board, since the agenda itself often provides no clue as to the content of a proposal or report to be provided under a given agenda item.
“Please inform the Board that unless this practice is abandoned in favor of permitting comment after introduction of agenda items, I will recommend to our Litigation Committee that we file an action for declaratory and injunctive relief to compel such a change, plus an award of costs and attorney fees,” Francke added.
In addition to questions about keeping the public informed about district business, the district is also under fire for providing a raise and a permanent position to Interim General Manager Tom Geaslan without the required public disclosures and participation.
On the Feb. 8 Oceano board agenda, Geaslan placed public employee appointment as a closed session item. During the private session, the board provided Geaslan a $27,000 annual increase in salary, along with back dating the increase to Jan. 1 and also promoted Geaslan to general manager as of June 30.
On Feb. 20, activist Kevin Rice sent a cure and correct demand letter pointing out numerous failings with the Brown Act. The letter asks the board to rescind its decision or face litigation:
“The agenda described the item as “PUBLIC EMPLOYEE APPOINTMENT” pursuant to sections 54954.5(e) and 54957. Such closed sessions shall not include discussion or action on proposed compensation. (§ 54957(b)(4).)
“When pertaining to compensation, the agenda notice must refer to a “CONFERENCE WITH LABOR NEGOTIATORS” and name the agency representatives and the unrepresented employee. (§§ 54954.5(f) and 54957.6.)
“Closed sessions may not include final action on the proposed compensation of one or more unrepresented employees. (§ 54957.6(a).)
“The employment contract must be disclosed. (§ 54957.1(c).)”
Activist Julie Tacker contends the increase in Geaslan’s salary to $120,000 is unwarranted, citing the districts continuing financial trouble, his lack of public administration experience and his failures to follow California’s transparency laws.
“Mr Geaslan came into the district promising to clean up the books and find a permanent general manager and all he has done is set himself up to take the position at an increased salary that the district can ill afford,” Tacker said.
The Brown Act was passed in 1953 because of mounting concerns that government bodies were avoiding scrutiny by meeting secretly. The Act guarantees the public the right to attend and participate in meetings of legislative bodies, to have forewarning of discussion items through posted agendas and forbids a majority of board members from discussing government issues in private.