Oceano under fire for Brown Act violations
April 25, 2013
By KAREN VELIE
One of the leading open government attorneys in California served the Oceano Community Services District with an order last week to cease and desist violating the Brown Act or face litigation.
The Ralph M. Brown Act, passed in 1953, guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies whose actions are to be conducted openly.
In the letter, Californians Aware attorney Terry Francke asks the district to stop curtailing public comment when its board does not like what is being said, provide records to the public as required by law, and to have district staff introduce an item before requiring public comment.
On three separate occasions, two of which the speaker was commenting on recently terminated for cause District Manager Tom Geaslen’s performance, the board shut down public comment.
On June 27, OCSD Board President Matt Guerrero shut down comments from Los Osos resident Jeff Edwards by stopping the meeting and calling the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s office for assistance. Three deputies detained Edwards for about 10 minutes and prohibited him from speaking during the public comment period.
Edwards was attempting to address his concerns about Geaslen’s management of the district and a supervisor who was on paid administrative leave after firing a disabled employee, an item slated to be discussed by the board in closed session.
“These interruptions lead little doubt that there are instances of viewpoint discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment even in non-public forums where, “the government may restrict expression only if the regulation is reasonable and the viewpoint neutral,” Leventhal v. Vista Unified School District.
The Brown Act requires that public records produced by a government entity and distributed to board members are made available to the public during the meeting.
Under Geaslen, records distributed to board members during meetings had to either be requested through a public records request, or found later on line or obtained through a trip to the district. The district’s attorney Molly Thurmond argued that the district did not have to have the documents at the meeting if they were available at the districts office even though it is closed during the meetings.
Franke has also asked the board to stop the practice of requiring public comment on agenda items with titles like “report of OCSD operations,” without any information in the board packet which “denies the public the opportunity to react to them,” he said.
Californians Aware wrote to Geaslen in Feb. 2012 that the practice of not proving sufficient information on agenda items is in violation of the law and needed to be changed. After receiving the letter, the board changed its practice but shortly thereafter resumed it.
“The board has 30 days from the receipt of this letter to provide Californians Aware with an unconditional commitment to cease, desist from, and not repeat the practices noted above,” Franke said in his April 17 letter. “Its failure to do so will entitle Californians Aware to file an action for declaratory injunction, and injunctive relief and for attorney fees and costs.”
Guerrero said the board plans to respond to the letter and its allegations within 30 days during a closed session meeting.
“As to the public comment, that is something being looked at,” Guerrero said. “As I am sure you are aware, we are in another period of transition. I expect this to be a period of growth for the organization.”