District Attorney orders San Simeon to correct Brown Act violation

April 19, 2020


The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office recently ordered the San Simeon Community Services District to correct a Brown Act violation, or face litigation. On March 20, the district board held a special meeting without allowing the public to attend and participate virtually or in person.

The Ralph M. Brown Act 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, Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Jorgensen informs the district that actions taken during the March 20 meeting are void, and orders the district to cure and correct those actions.

“Specifically, the Board of Directors failed to hold an “open and public” meeting as required by Government Code Section 54953,” Jorgensen wrote.

In addition, Jorgensen asks the district to e-mail future agenda packets to him, and recommends directors and staff “schedule a Brown Act training in the near future.”

As a result of the coronavirus, government agencies in California are not permitting the public to attend meetings in person, and are instead holding virtual meetings. Even so, the agencies are still required to allow the public to watch and participate.

Prior to the March 20 meeting, the district posted a notice inviting members of the public to join through a hyperlink or a dial-in conference number. However, neither the Zoom hyperlink nor the dial-in teleconference number worked.

During the meeting, several directors and staff acknowledged the public was unable to participate, but continued on and voted to implement a resolution giving the general manager increased authority, and providing temporary relief to residents unable to pay their sewer and water bills, according to the agenda.

“One staff member stated no one from the public contacted her about the issue, implying no one wanted to attend,” Jorgensen wrote in his letter. “The error was not incidental. The recording of the meeting indicates at least some knew of the issue before the meeting started. Yet the staff failed to take steps to correct the error before the start. All in attendance were aware that the metaphorical doorway into the virtual meeting was locked and sealed.”

The district board plans to discuss Jorgensen’s order at a special meeting scheduled for April 22, in which the public is invited to attend via Zoom.

The Ralph M. Brown Act was passed in 1953 because of mounting concerns that government bodies were avoiding scrutiny by meeting secretly. The act, which has been amended and strengthened in the years since, 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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This serves as a well-deserved warning to all in local government who try to get around transparency and accountability.

I am appreciative of the District Attorney Office’s engagement in our small, disadvantaged community to protect our community’s right to open government, input, and participation. With the DA watching, some of us believe the District will be a bit more open. The DA’s office will be monitoring the District for the rest of year. There was more in the DA’s letter.

The District is trying to pass a local Declaration of Emergency which is something that the law says only counties, and cities can do. Even worse the resolution that was voided by the DA would have provided less relief for residents than the Governor mandated. I don’t think they can override a Governor’s executive order, but I guess they do. Sadly, staff is recommending the Board re-approve the voided resolution this Wednesday.

It’s great that the DA went after the little San Simeon CSD.

Now if we could just get the DA to go after the BIG crimes that are right out in the open and ignored.

Was virtual participation an option at the creation of the Brown Act or do we just accept it because it’s the new thing to do?

Good job Deputy DA Jorgensen. “All in attendance were aware that the metaphorical doorway into the virtual meeting was locked and sealed.”

I think it is time to disband CSDs. I swear, every time I turn around another one is involved in some sort of controversy or corruption. Do away with all of them. They rate right at the bottom along with overbearing and power-hungry HOAs.

It’s amazing they thought they could get away with it.

The Brown Act and transparency laws help stop corruption. It is good to know the DA is keeping track on local governments.