An ‘unsatisfactory’ response
City Council admits no wrongdoing amid allegations of violating open-meeting law
When local activist Jessica Allen was asked to characterize the response to her letter alleging that the Chico City Council has violated California’s open-meetings law, she settled on “unsatisfactory.”
“That’s a good way to describe it,” she said during a recent interview. “It’s less than nothing.”
In a 22-page document sent to the City Council on Aug. 5, Allen alleges six violations of the Ralph M. Brown Act by the council, mostly relating to Mark Orme’s appointment to the city manager post in July.
The city’s response, dated Sept. 4 and signed by Mayor Scott Gruendl, succinctly summarizes the allegations and reads: “To avoid unnecessary litigation and without admitting any violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the Chico City Council hereby reaffirms its unconditional commitment to continue to abide by the Ralph M. Brown Act.”
Allen is represented by Paul Nicholas Boylan, a Davis-based attorney and Brown Act expert. During a recent interview, Boylan provided a translation of the city’s response.
“As far as I can tell, all it said was, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong, and we’ll continue doing things right,’” Boylan said.
Gruendl offered his take: “Whether or not these allegations are true, we will always uphold the Brown Act.”
The Brown Act was passed by the California Legislature in 1953 as a response to government officials using back-room meetings guised as “study sessions” or “workshops” to avoid public scrutiny. The law’s intent was to ensure that members of the public have unrestricted access to meetings of public bodies.
“When public agencies do things in secret and get away with it, they feel they’re not accountable to the public,” Boylan said. “When that happens, there exists the recipe for corruption.”
That’s not to say Allen or Boylan are alleging corruption on the part of the City Council; rather, Allen simply wants the panel to follow sound processes that adhere to California law.
“The fact that they don’t properly put the items on the agenda and they don’t make the announcements after they [take action] is really the problem,” she said.
One of the allegations outlined in Allen’s letter occurred during closed session on July 1, when the council met to discuss hiring a permanent city manager. Under the Brown Act, compensation of a public official cannot be discussed during a closed-session meeting. But Gruendl sent out a press release on July 2 announcing that the council had appointed Orme to the city’s top position, and included specific information about his salary—leading Allen to believe compensation was discussed.
Further alleged violations include failing to report action taken by the City Council in closed session and the votes of each council member; discussing or taking action on matters not specifically exempted from the open-meeting rules detailed in the Brown Act; and discussing or taking action on items not posted on the agenda.
Mayor Gruendl said by phone that city officials reviewed each of Allen’s allegations and “determined that, no, we did not perform in the manner she claims that we did. … I can very much see how she could come to the conclusion she did, because closed session is exactly that—closed to the public, but usually for good reason.”
Gruendl maintains that the council’s closed-session procedures have improved in terms of transparency, particularly since Vince Ewing was hired as city attorney in April.
“One of the things Vince did right off the bat was provide reports on closed sessions,” he said. “Something is always said about the votes that were taken and the [tally] of votes, and that’s totally new.”
But Gruendl did concede that Allen’s letter has prompted internal discussion of how certain procedures are handled.
“We’ve talked about reporting more,” he said. “At what point are we violating confidentiality? At what point do we report 100 percent? And that’s the direct result of Jessica’s invoice.”
After receiving the city’s response, Allen has 60 days to submit a petition for writ of mandate, or, in other words, a court order to cease alleged illegal actions.