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City denies violating Brown Act

August 04, 2005|By: Alicia Robinson

Costa Mesa's city attorney has rejected a resident's claim that city

officials violated the Brown Act by participating in private meetings

concerning the city's Job Center.

Martin Millard, a Costa Mesa resident who has said the city

shouldn't be running the Job Center, sent the complaint to City

Attorney Kimberly Hall Barlow on July 12. It alleged that members of

the City Council and city staff have worked with an independent

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committee but withheld information about their involvement and the

committee's work.

The city-run Job Center provides a place for day laborers to

connect with employers. It has been a flashpoint in debates over

illegal immigration, and the City Council has voted to close the

center at the end of this year.

Once the center's closing was announced, a group of private

individuals began meeting with the goal of creating a new job center

not affiliated with the city. Led by Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce

President Ed Fawcett, those meetings have not been public.

The Brown Act requires the City Council to conduct public business

in the open at public meetings.

Millard's complaint suggested that council members or city staff

were receiving reports on the committee's work. But when Millard

requested any written records of city participation in the committee,

his complaint stated, he was told no such records existed.

The California Public Records Act requires government agencies,

when asked, to disclose written records that deal with public

business.

"The city is involved in it, and with the city involved, the

public should know what's going on," Millard said.

Costa Mesa Assistant City Manager Steve Hayman said he has

attended some of the private meetings as "an invited guest," but he

hasn't taken notes.

"It's correct that there isn't anything written. I don't bring

anything back from those meetings, but what I'm not aware of is his

[Millard's] supposed request for anything I might have," Hayman said.

Barlow sent a response to Millard's complaint July 27 concluding

that no Brown Act violation has occurred.

"The Brown Act is not implicated when the city neither creates the

committee, pays for its operation, or appoints its members, and the

committee meetings do not include a majority of the council members,"

Barlow wrote.

She also denied that any "secret briefings" of the council or

staff members have occurred.

Fawcett has kept the committee meetings under wraps even from the

media because of the controversy surrounding the Job Center. If any

committee members talk to a council member on their own, it's their

choice to do so, he said, but no council members have had input on

the meetings.

Because the private group wasn't established by the council, it

has discretion over whom it invites, as long as a quorum of council

members isn't there, said Terry Francke, general counsel for

Californians Aware, a nonprofit group that supports open government.

"It is not the city's 'involvement' which triggers the Brown Act,"

he said. "To have that statute come into play, you've got to have

something that the law calls a legislative body meeting, and

ordinarily that means a government body."

That means a council member or city staff member could go to the

private group's meetings without violating the Brown Act.

"If it's true that nothing was ever written down or nothing was

ever acquired in writing by visiting this meeting, then you don't

have any public records issue," Francke said.

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