Any elective or appointive government body operates by public law — the Ralph M. Brown Act. The law stipulates that a public governing body cannot discuss any item that isn’t published on the agenda 72 hours before the meeting.
The Brown Act was the result of public outcry over how business was done in the past when lawmakers would have backroom discussions and make agreements concerning government matters out of the public view. Frequently these deals benefited friends and contributors to politicians.
The law says: “Throughout California’s history, local legislative bodies have played a vital role in bringing participatory democracy to the citizens of the state. Local legislative bodies — such as boards, councils and commissions — are created in recognition of the fact that several minds are better than one, and that through debate and discussion, the best ideas will emerge.”
As Lompoc City Council meetings come to a close, one of the last items on the agenda are council requests — this is when council members can ask that an item be put on the agenda for future discussion.
Lompoc’s Mayor Linn has had many memory lapses when it comes to Brown Act requirements. When first elected, he and other newly elected council members attended the League of California Cities workshop for newly elected officials and the Brown Act is discussed at length, and all elected officials and appointed commissioners receive annual refresher training on the important elements of the act.
After nearly four years serving as mayor, he should know what can be discussed and what can’t — but that doesn’t seem to deter him from pushing the legal envelope.
On April 1 at about 9:45 p.m., the mayor requested that a letter supporting a private citizen who was initiating litigation with Santa Barbara County concerning a privately operated recreational facility be added to the agenda as an emergency exception to the Brown Act.
The law allows three exceptions to the 72-hour rule: if there is an emergency; if there is a need for immediate action that cannot reasonably wait for the next regularly scheduled meeting; or when an item has been continued from a previous meeting.
The law defines an emergency “as a crippling activity, work stoppage or other activity which severely impairs public health, safety or both”; the letter met none of those criteria. And it would seem to most reasonable people that any need for immediate action should be related to city business, not any private party’s legal needs.
Linn got away with it and shortly after midnight, long after the public had left the council chambers, the council agreed to authorize him to sign a “letter of declaration” as mayor, without staff input, that contained statements of fact provided by Linn that were later found to be erroneous — something that could have been prevented if the proper process was followed.
On June 17 at the end of a council meeting, Linn asked the city council members to provide guidance to the city administrator on enforcement of the city's safe and sane fireworks ordinance. The item was not on the agenda, and the public had no opportunity to provide input on Linn's attempt to develop a council consensus.
The city attorney stopped the discussion and reminded the council that the item could not be discussed because of Brown Act requirements for public notice.
But Linn didn't stop there. He next suggested each council member meet with the city administrator individually to discuss his or her opinion on enforcement. Once again, the city attorney was forced to advise the council that conversations like this would be a violation of the law, because it would create a serial meeting held outside of public view.
Even after two admonishments by the city attorney about the Brown Act, Lompoc's mayor tried one more time to develop a council action without public notice and no opportunity for public comment when he attempted to get the council to direct the city administrator to make a word change in the city's parking ordinance.
The city attorney stopped that attempt, too — the third attempt by the mayor to get around the Brown Act in one night.
Mayor Linn has had more trouble with transparency. Recently it was alleged by a homeowner who filed a noise complaint that he told him he would have a neighboring business moved even before the public hearing process had occurred, a troubling allegation because as mayor, Linn is supposed to remain objective until all the evidence is presented in public.
It is very troubling indeed that Mayor Linn routinely tries to get the council to take actions without the proper public notice, which cuts the public out of the governing process. Will he ever change? Probably not.
— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.