San Juan Capistrano’s Brown Act Blues

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San Juan Capistrano City Attorney Omar Sandoval says his city was found not to have violated the Brown Act, but correspondence revealed last week between Sandoval and Senior Assistant District Attorney William Feccia imply otherwise.

The series of letters came off the heels of a meeting involving DA officials and Sandoval in November of last year. The letters spell out an agreement between the two that the city council would only discuss an open space property negotiation — known as the CLC deal — in open session.

They also direct Sandoval to seek an opinion from the Attorney General on the Brown Act’s open meeting real estate exemption for “price and terms of payment.”

Apparently, the city was interpreting the Brown Act clause more broadly than the DA’s office. The DA says council members went into closed session to discuss more than just “price and terms of payment” for the CLC deal, according to a story in the Orange County Register. The deal splits more than 170 acres of land just northwest of the city between Crystal Lake Cathedrals, the city and a housing developer.

Revelations about the existence of the letters came at last week’s city council meeting when citizen activists accused the city of violating the Brown Act. Citizen activist Jim Reardon said Sandoval’s letter in that correspondence rebukes his own claim that the DA found the city had not violated the Brown Act.

“I don’t know why the DA would consider that a stipulation if that (the stipulation) wasn’t satisfied in the first place,” Reardon said.

Mayor Londres Uso expressed frustration that the letter to the DA — a public document — was not discussed in open session.

“All this goes back to the issue I raised at the last council meeting,” Uso said. “We are not being open with the public.”

Using the open government law to justify not saying anything has been an ironic theme of late at city council meetings.

During discussion on some items at the regular council meeting last week, the audience would shout “Brown Act! Brown Act!” And Uso would sarcastically ask “Is that a violation of the Brown Act?”

When Uso asked Sandoval to affirm the accuracy of Reardon’s claim about the letter, Sandoval said – to jeering laughter from the audience – that he couldn’t respond to the claim because of the curtains brought down by the Brown Act.

“I’m sure the public feels that the Brown Act is being used to not have discussion . . . but that’s what it says,” Sandoval said.

Uso, who at the last city council meeting challenged his colleagues to fulfill the “spirit” of the Brown Act, also expressed confusion over what he described as a “complex law” and said he couldn’t really tell if the council was violating the law or not.

“I just don’t know,” Uso said. “I’ve accepted my city attorney’s advice – I’ve accepted the city council’s decision as to how we deal with the Brown Act.”

The Capistrano Insider posted copies of the letter on its website. You can read them here, here and here.



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