Oceano accused of Brown Act violations

February 21, 2012


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.

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I’m glad you pointed out that Geaslen is assisted in his unethical and illegal practices under color of his authority as OCSD’s general manager by Hall & Hieatt’s attorney “subcontractee” Molly Thurmond. Thurmond herself may be looking at a charge of attorney misconduct for failing to identify the parties with whom she is “negotiating” concerning Oceano’s title ownership of water and water rights in OCSD agendas. The topic routinely comes up in “closed session” and the parties have not been identified in OCSD’s agendas in earlier discussions in 2010 and 2011.

After a member of the audience repeatedly pointed out the omission to Thurmond, Thurmond incorrectly claimed that she was “not required by the Brown Act to identify the parties,” with whom she was “negotiating,” despite the audience member citing the exact code section to her under the Act.

Later, the OCSD agendas appeared to reflect the Civil case numbers involved in the Santa Maria Groundwater litigation. Only problem is, the cases were not calendared for hearing in any court at the time Thurmond was charging the district for work on “the litigation.” Nor did the Oceano Community Services District show up as a “party” in any litigation involving the case numbers cited in the agendas.

When pressed to identify with specificity the parties with whom Thurmond was “negotiating on behalf of the OCSD,” Thurmond’s response was that she was “not required to identify the parties with whom she was negotiating.” But the question remains why the negotiation would qualify for “closed session” status under the Brown Act if there was in fact, no litigation pending with respect to the case numbers Thurmond directed staff to add to the agendas.

When pressed to identify the parties who were involved in “the negotiations,” Thurmond told the audience member to “find the parties herself” by looking in the court’s public record. Only problem is, the Santa Maria Groundwater litigation has had over 875 parties in the course of more than ten years of litigation. But even so, NO court involved in the groundwater litigation–including courts at the appellate level–list present proceedings under the case numbers Thurmond added to the agenda. Nor does the OCSD come up as a party in any such water litigation.

Terry Franke has had notice of this type of “professional conduct” from OCSD staff for over a year, and the fact that he has finally sent a “demand” letter to the OCSD indicates to me that the district’s violations may go well beyond mere Brown Act violations. Because of Franke’s working relationship with the Administrator of the Courts, he is reluctant to act on a single complaint concerning Brown Act violations that involve local agencies. My guess is he is already informed of a number of credible complaints and violations, and his investigative reach is statewide, including Santa Clara County where Geaslen purports to be from. By coincidence, the groundwater litigation was heard in that county after it left Santa Maria.

A small-fry Genesis attempt to what the City of Bell is.

After a would be contempt, then the authority to tax and support it!

George Orwell “Animal Farm” a good and timeless read.

CCN an interesting report.