Costa Mesa City Council members Tuesday debated the allegations by the First Amendment advocacy group CalAware that they violated the state’s open meetings law by establishing secret, two-member working groups to develop policy.
City officials said the most controversial working group, which developed the city’s approach to this fiscal year’s budget and formulated the city’s outsourcing plan, would now disperse because the budget has been released. The group consisted of Mayor Gary Monahan and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeime.
“We’re done tonight,” announced Councilman Jim Righeimer Tuesday night.
But CalAware (which is a Voice of OC partner) is not withdrawing. CalAware General Counsel Terry Francke is preparing to ask a Superior Court judge to declare the use of such working groups illegal.
Francke said the working groups established by the council in January violate the state’s Brown Act, which governs open meetings, because they serve as standing committees but do not allow the public access to their deliberations.
Costa Mesa City Attorney Thomas Duarte has said Francke is wrong because the working groups were not set up to be ongoing.
Righeimer reiterated that stance Tuesday night: ‘’They were defined,” he said. “They were for a short period of time.”
Monahan said numerous regional agencies across Orange County use working groups with elected officials. “Everyone has working groups.”
“I take exception on how we’re getting beat up,” Monahan said. He added he would back Duarte over “an attorney who has it in for us.”
Councilwoman Wendy Leece disagreed. “I appreciate the work of Terry Frankce and his letter,” Leece said.
Leece, who has bitterly opposed the council majority’s outsourcing plan, followed up her statement of support for the CalAware position by making a formal public records request for all documents and minutes of meetings associated with the working groups.
“I believe the public is owed an explanation for the massive outsourcing,” Leece said.
Leece said she agreed with Francke’s contention that the original staff reports establishing the working groups in January made no mention of their temporary status.
“I believe there was no mention these working groups were for a specific period. The way the report was written was for an indefinite time.”
Leece said there’s good reason for the state law not allowing such working groups to operate secretly. She said the report of the budget subcommittee was full of exaggerations.
Francke’s central point on why that’s dangerous and illegal is that the committee proposal needed only one more vote to become policy.
“There was no justification or detail,” Leece said. “It was reckless and down the road will have unintended consequences.”
— NORBERTO SANTANA JR.