George Weiss is the second Laguna Beach City Council member to be formally condemned by his colleagues this year, through what’s formally known as a censure.
On Tuesday night, City council members voted 3-2 to censure Weiss for disclosing “confidential information” from a June 29 closed session meeting regarding the renovation of Hotel Laguna.
Weiss apparently gave information surrounding the renovation to a resident who is appealing elements of the project.
Mayor Bob Whalen requested the censure, who alleged Weiss violated the Brown Act — the state’s transparency law on local governments.
Weiss and Councilwoman Toni Iseman voted against the censure and called for more transparency.
The two argued that the closed session item on Hotel Laguna was not properly agendized and instead listed as anticipated litigation that was never discussed — Weiss, at one point, even called for an investigation by the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
“There needs to be greater transparency in open council sessions with the public so that agenda items aren’t secreted away in closed sessions that fail to meet the Brown Act criteria of closed sessions,” Weiss said.
“The intention is to bring sunlight to government actions,” she said about the Brown Act. “It’s intended to let people know what happened … City staff, city attorney and the mayor are trying to do just the opposite. They’re trying to cover up the city’s actions on one of the most controversial projects in our city.”
City Attorney Phil Kohn said the closed session meeting didn’t break transparency law and was properly conducted.
The censure comes months after Councilman Peter Blake was censured for insulting residents and colleagues particularly Iseman, at the request of Weiss.
Whalen, who brought the censure before the council, said Weiss shouldn’t have disclosed information — regardless of his public notice concerns.
“Even if — hypothetically — it had been inappropriately noticed as a closed session item, the remedy is not to disclose confidential information to members of the public,” Whalen said.
According to the staff report, Weiss and Iseman shared information they weren’t authorized to do about the meeting with resident Mark Fudge, who is appealing the renovation project with the California Coastal Commission.
At the council’s meeting on July 27, Fudge told officials he met with Iseman and Weiss as well as a group of concerned citizens in his office and discussed the June meeting that took place behind closed doors.
“At that meeting, I was told on the night of the 29th in closed session many things were discussed: Marc Wiener [Community Development Director] presented a project for getting the hotel opened up and was seeking to get the red tags removed so the project can move forward,” Fudge said, according to the agenda report.
He also said council members voted on the matter.
“A vote was held. Bob Whalen, Sue Kempf and Peter Blake voted in the affirmative. George Weiss voted in the negative and Toni was put down as abstaining,” he added.
The agenda report didn’t refute Fudge’s claim.
Blake, who was censured earlier this year, questioned Iseman about the meeting with Fudge and pushed for her to be censured too.
“I’ve been censured by this group, and I owned my censure — so I’m moving to censure both of you,” he said.
Initially, Whalen requested Iseman also be censured, but after both Weiss and the councilwoman said she didn’t disclose information, Iseman was dropped from the censure.
Weiss acknowledged that he disclosed information and said he’d be happy to invite the Orange County District Attorney to conduct an investigation on the issue.
He said the hotel renovation shouldn’t have been discussed behind closed doors in the first place.
“I don’t think what I disclosed was appropriate for a confidential session, I’ll say that. And that’s not the first time and I’m happy to describe more of those to the DA as well,” Weiss said.
Under California’s Brown Act, city councils are allowed to hold private meetings not open to the public under certain conditions — like price and terms of land sales, executive employee reviews and lawsuits.
Weiss and Iseman argued that the renovation project did not meet those conditions and should have instead been brought up at a planning commission meeting for public review.
“There needs to be an equal treatment of all businesses and residents in Laguna Beach, not exceptions made for one development without the public’s input,” Weiss said.
Kohn, the city attorney, warned violating the Brown Act can lead to a censure or a court injunction to prevent further disclosures.
Mark Rosen, an attorney representing Weiss and Iseman, criticized the censure proceeding.
“This is basically a kangaroo court, where you’re attempting to censure two of your members without any opportunity to have a real hearing,” he said. “This is really in the realm of the [Fair Political Practice Commission], or the district attorney who can look at the whole issue not only whether council members violated the Brown Act, but whether the meeting itself was improper under the Brown Act.”
During public comments, some argued for Weiss and Iseman, saying the two increased transparency on a controversial development proposal.
“What we need is more not less transparency, especially on sensitive issues of development projects, and the impact those projects have on the culture and character of Laguna Beach,” resident Noah Fullerton said during Tuesday’s public comment.
Others said the censure is not about Hotel Laguna or the decisions made in closed session.
“This has to do with council members’ responsibility not to divulge that information to the public. This is not a whistleblower situation. That would mean you quietly go to a higher authority and expose something. They didn’t take it to the city attorney,” resident Jan Hobbs said.
Some commenters, like resident Michele Monda, also said the lease owner of the hotel — Mo Honarkar — was getting preferential treatment.
“You continue to give exceptions to Mo Honarkar over what any other resident would have to go through. That’s the real violation here. Why are you so eager to ignore his repeated violations of permits, stop work orders, etc. and keep rewarding his very bad and questionable behavior?” she said.
During public comment at the June 29 meeting, multiple contractors said Honarkar has not paid them for their services as they agreed.
Hasty Honarkar — Mo’s daughter — also spoke at the meeting and said the validity of their invoices were being investigated.
Kohn, the city attorney, said at that meeting the city does not get involved in civil disputes.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.