Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 2:55 am | Fair 50º


Ron Fink

Ron Fink: The Ralph M. Brown Act, aka Politicians’ Blurred Transparency Attempt

The Ralph M. Brown Act was supposed to make government transparent and assessable to the public. At least that was the theory. I’ll explain.

The act was written and signed by the governor following many complaints by the public that too many deals were being made out of public view.

In the “good old days” most public business was conducted in smoke-filled rooms by the titans of industry and the politicians they elected over an adult beverage.

But, being written by politicians, it left many loopholes big enough to still allow them a lot of latitude in how they conducted business.

There have been a number of assertions over the last few years that the Lompoc City Council has violated the Brown Act. Each of these assertions was explained away by the city.

And while the city didn’t admit that they did anything wrong, they also said they wouldn’t do it again. This sounds like double talk to me, but I am not a lawyer.

“The Act expressly prohibits serial meetings that are conducted through direct communications, personal intermediaries or technological devices for the purpose of developing a concurrence as to action to be taken,” the act says. That sounds good until it is put into practice.

One issue that prompted concern back in 2014 was when former mayor John Linn spoke in favor of a private recreational facility that is outside the city limits and is owned and operated by friend and confidant Jim Mosby during a county board of supervisors hearing on an appeal of a planning commission decision to deny the project.

What was most concerning was how Linn represented himself. After being introduced as the Mayor of Lompoc and while wearing his official city nameplate, he gave the impression that he represented an official position of the City of Lompoc. “All the council members are here,” he said, when only two others were in the room, before indirectly implying that the City Council had agreed to support the project.

Clearly this effort was designed to help Mosby.

But the council had never discussed the project publicly, a fact that the city attorney confirmed in a response to an inquiry from the District Attorney’s office. If they had agreed to anything out-of-public view it would have been a violation of open meeting laws.

But, the reply was that there was nothing to see here, but we won’t do it again.

Then in September 2015 the council discussed a notice of default that was to be sent in regards to a Memorandum of Understanding for the fantasy Space Center proposal. Since this was determined to be a real property negotiation the issue was discussed in closed session.

A member of the community, and supporter of former mayor John Linn who was an advocate for the Space Center project, took exception to this and filed a Brown Act complaint.

In response the city said that to avoid the cost of litigation “the Council unconditionally committed it would cease, desist from, and not repeat the challenged past action.” In other words, we didn’t do it, but we won’t do it again.

Recently on June 7, 2016 council member Mosby made an extensive and complicated motion concerning the Motorsports Project MOU at the end of a long and tedious discussion of the topic.

This motion was not part of the staff report and was therefore presented as new information to the council. Mosby handed out nothing to council members prior to making his motion.

Two other council members could be seen looking at pieces of paper as he read and one even waived the paper as he asked a specific question related to a sentence that was in the middle of the motion.

Many think that this motion was prepared by the Motorsports Committee or John Linn and handed to the three prior to the meeting.

Some folks would conclude by looking at the video recording of the meeting that it certainly appeared that three council members had copies of the motion before the meeting — that’s called a serial meeting.

In each of these examples, it certainly appeared that a layman’s reading of the Brown Act would lead you to believe that a violation had occurred.

But apparently there is a lot of wiggle room in the act’s language and when lawyers get involved the public is usually left scratching its head and wondering what the meaning of “open meeting” really is.

Tonight the Lompoc City Council will have a special meeting to discuss the issue. Hopefully they will explain the meaning of an open meeting, who is responsible to assure that closed meetings are conducted within the confines of the Brown Act, who determines what the agenda is for closed meetings, and what happens if a closed meeting discussion leads into issues that should be discussed publicly.

I am not optimistic that the issue will be any clearer after the special council meeting is complete since the Brown Act is by design more opaque than transparent.

— 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]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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