San Juan Capistrano City Council Split Over Lawsuit Transparency

(Editors’ Note: Kali Hoffman is a student journalist at Chapman University participating in the Voice of OC Youth Media program)

A recent $2.9 million settlement is stirring debate over whether the city council should let residents in on closed-door legal discussions.

OC Coastkeeper sued the city on July 5, 2017, alleging that the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park has violated the U.S. Clean Water Act roughly 9,000 times by polluting the nearby San Juan Creek.

Since the suit is settled, Mayor Sergio Farias proposed that the council waive confidentiality laws and disclose all motions made and votes taken regarding the settlement in an Aug. 21 closed session “in an effort to bring more transparency to city government.”

While Farias and city council Member Derek Reeve wanted to release all information on closed session deliberations, the idea drew stark opposition from some on the council majority.

Farias’ initial request was tabled after city council member Pam Patterson walked away from the dias before discussion of the issue at the Sept. 18 meeting. Residents attempted to recall Patterson in 2017, claiming she illegally participated in an settlement that would cost $1 million to taxpayers. 

Mayor Pro Tem Brian Marryott was also against releasing the information.

More than 30 minutes into the discussion, Maryott urged the council to start being “the adults in the room” and “get this crap over with”. Farias’ proposal to disclose all motions made and votes taken during the closed session was voted down 3-2 by the council, with Farias and Reeve in support. Reeve then proposed a substitute motion that the council publicly disclose the final vote on the settlement, which was passed unanimously. 

“Every time you make a vote, every time you make a motion, you better be able to explain that to your constituents,” Farias said. “I don’t think anyone should fear transparency, and I don’t think anyone should ever fear having to explain your vote, because it means something.”

Despite denying OC Coastkeeper’s allegations, city council announced in a press release Sept. 7 that they will fund $1 million in public works projects to benefit the San Juan Creek watershed and pay OC Coastkeeper $1.9 million in related legal fees and further monitoring costs.

No official minutes were taken in the Aug. 21 closed session meeting, so all information disclosed would be based on the council members’ memories.

Maryott urged the council to vote against disclosing the discussion of the lawsuit, calling the proposal “entirely political” and “utter nonsense” and saying he didn’t want to set a precedent of waving confidentiality rules.

“We need to go into a closed session and be able to make decisions about millions of dollars of our residents’ without political overhang that something said or something done is gonna be used in a 3-2 vote because it benefits somebody else.” he said. “This is a very disingenuous item, the discussion is disingenuous, and it’s very very disappointing, but setting all that aside, (voting yes is) a really, really stupid thing to do.”

Councilmember Kerry Ferguson, who is up for reelection along with Reeve and Patterson, also opposed “setting a dangerous precedent” of relying on “anecdotal memory” to give public context of a closed session vote.

Farias took “exception” to the objections, saying citizens are “owed” an explanation behind the settlement’s final decision and that increased transparency would decrease voter speculation in the upcoming Nov. 6 elections. Reeve was also in support of increasing the transparency of closed session meetings. 

“Give me a break. We all know what happened in this closed session,” Reeve said. “This was a historic case that was threatening the entire equestrian culture of our town…and I think having context is important.”