CalAware Threatens to Sue Costa Mesa Over Alleged Brown Act Violations

The Costa Mesa Civic Center. (Photo credit: City of Costa Mesa)

The Costa Mesa Civic Center. (Photo credit: City of Costa Mesa)

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Costa Mesa officials are giving their outsourcing plan a legal review after open government watchdog group CalAware charged that meetings of the two-member City Council working groups, one of which developed the city’s outsourcing plan, violated state law.

City Attorney Thomas Duarte, who previously reviewed the working groups and gave them a legal thumbs up, will review his conclusions again and issue a formal opinion by Monday, according to Interim Communications Director Bill Lobdell.

One member of the City Council majority who has been pushing for the radical outsourcing plan said he thought Duarte’s legal conclusions put them on solid ground.

“Our attorneys say what we are doing is within the framework of the law,” said Costa Mesa City Councilman Stephen Mensinger earlier in the day.

But that is not the opinion of Terry Francke, executive director of CalAware, a statewide First Amendment advocacy group that threatened legal action Tuesday after researching the issue.

(Voice of OC is a media partner with CalAware, and Francke also serves as Voice of OC’s open records consultant.)

Francke said he responded to the question of Brown Act violations after being contacted by a Costa Mesa resident. Blogger Geoff West wrote Wednesday about his interaction with Francke.

He said the working groups do violate the Ralph M. Brown Act because they are functioning like standing committees with regular meeting schedules and topical designation.

Five working groups were set up by the City Council in January, according to a city release. The most politically sensitive working group centered on the budget and included only Mayor Gary Monahan and Councilman Jim Righeimer.

According to the press release issued by city officials, “the Budget and Capital Improvements has convened 12 times since January 2011, concentrating on outsourcing issues.” The press statement also noted that the committee would make a “final oral report” at the May 17 City Council meeting.

City Council members adopted an aggressive outsourcing plan in February largely after the budget working group determined that the city was potentially facing insolvency.

Francke said state law doesn’t allow city council members to make policy in a vaccum.

From Francke’s letter:

“The fact remains that if the group’s meetings are private, the public will have no sense (unless it is told) of just what avenues were explored, what options were examined and discounted or discarded, or who met with the group in guiding its inquiries or formulating its proposals.

“The public will be presented with a package to react to, and one with weeks or months of momentum behind it by the time it reaches the Council, needing only one of three votes to be approved.”

Francke advised City Council members that the working groups need to comply with the state’s open meetings laws, and if they didn’t, his group would consider initiating litigation.

Opponents of the outsourcing plan applauded Francke’s letter saying it gave a legal voice to their frustrations about the speed of the process in Costa Mesa.

“Working groups have been a longtime concern,” said local activist Greg Ridge, who is also affiliated with Repair Costa Mesa, a community group that is funded in part by the Orange County Employees Association.

Making the working groups open to the public “opens up the process,” Ridge said. “It brings in the light of day.”

He added: “That’s all that we’ve asked for. If something is so strong as an idea, then it will easily stand up to the scrutiny of daylight.”

Francke said state law backs up Ridge.

On Monday, Duarte gets to formally state where the city stands.

Correction: Due to an editor’s error, the headline on a previous version of this story left out the word “alleged” when referring to charges of Brown Act violations against Costa Mesa. We regret the error



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