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The country’s largest civil rights group is arguing City of Orange officials violated state transparency law when they decided behind closed doors to shutter Mary’s Kitchen, a longstanding soup kitchen. 

Orange officials made that call in a closed-session meeting on July 13, out of the public eye, without proper “prior notice to the public that it was doing so,” wrote Sari Zureiqat of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California in a Sept. 10 warning letter to the city.

The letter is co-signed by attorney Brooke Wietzmann of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, which has represented homeless people in civil cases against the County of Orange and various cities. 

Read it here.

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“We are concerned this behavior violates the Brown Act in several ways and urge you to cure or correct these violations prior to September 18, the date that Mary’s Kitchen — a nonprofit that has served unhoused people at its current location since 1994 — is expected to vacate City Property,” the letter reads. 

The Ralph M. Brown Act of 1953 is the statewide transparency law that is meant to govern how cities and counties handle public business in open meetings, like agenda posting requirements or limiting what can be discussed in private closed sessions.

Orange City Hall spokesperson Paul Sitkoff responded to requests for comment with a text message reading “our Counsel has reviewed the suit, and believes it to be without merit.  We are currently preparing an appropriate response to the ACLU. Unfortunately, we can’t comment further at this time.” 

Weitzman, called for comment Tuesday, said “assuming nothing at the City of Orange side changes, we do plan on filing a request for a restraining order” — barring the city from vacating the kitchen from its property — in federal court either late tonight or early tomorrow.” 

Recently, Weitzman said she and a few other prominent attorneys for homeless people — some of whom advocated for the homeless during the Santa Ana Riverbed encampment clearing of 2018 — filed a federal complaint alleging constitutional violations over the city’s closure of Mary’s. 

Zureiqat, in a Tuesday phone interview, said the ACLU would not be part of that restraining order request and is not part of the federal lawsuit, but “obviously we are monitoring the situation and keeping in touch with Brooke” and “we can make other decisions as things develop.”

“The ACLU? The ACLU? That’s interesting. I didn’t know about that,” said Gloria Seuss, the current woman in charge of Mary’s Kitchen, chuckling over the phone. Her kitchen’s last day, under the city’s lease termination, is this Saturday.

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The Brown Act is California’s cornerstone open government meetings law which ideally ensures local governments — like city councils — hold open and public meetings. 

The transparency law, the ACLU points out, generally prohibits taking “action by secret ballot” and mandates that all items of business or policy during a meeting be described in an agenda posed 72 hours before a meeting.

The City of Orange ignored these requirements, claims the ACLU, which argues two things in its letter. 

One argument, Zureiqat said, is that the city didn’t have justifiable reason for going into closed session:

“Under California law, policy decisions like this need to be made in public, giving the public an opportunity to comment with council members deliberating and voting ultimately in front of the public.” 

The other is that, even if the city did have justifiable reason for taking the issue behind closed doors, “they still have problems about how they noticed the meeting. The closed session agenda for that meeting did not list the specific subject of the closed session discussion.”

Members of the public who came to speak on Mary’s Kitchen on July 13 “didn’t know the City Council had just discussed that issue in closed session prior to the public meeting, and so they were making comments after the council’s decision was already made,” Zureiqat said.

“The insult was added to injury when the City Attorney’s closed session report” — which detailed the city’s closed-door decision on Mary’s for the public after-the-fact — “came after everyone made their comments,” Zureiqat said.

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Since 1994, the City of Orange has leased a city-owned lot in an industrial area off West Struck Ave to Mary’s Kitchen for $1 a year. Officials formally notified Seuss and the kitchen that they had terminated the kitchen’s lease on the grounds that the kitchen was becoming a public nuisance. 

The city claims Mary’s Kitchen has lately become a criminal attraction, despite its decades of service and proximity to the police department headquarters. Officials also argue that free meals are “day-to-day maintenance” when there are better, longer-term ways to get people help.

Advocates, however, say they’re only stepping up to fill in the gaps left by local leadership in Orange County that’s failed throughout the years to even ensure that local homeless people don’t die on the street. 

The kitchen provides not only meals, but also clothes, showers, and phone-charging for homeless people who stop by. 

Just the day before she spoke to Voice of OC, Seuss said, police had interacted with a homeless person who had a job interview and called her asking if she could supply the individual with proper clothes. 

“The officers on the street are used to us,” Seuss said, adding she’s heard nothing from anyone else in the city in recent weeks. 

Seuss said the kitchen plans on remaining open through Sept. 18 with full services. 

“We’re not moving. We would move if we had a place to go to and we tried to tell the city,” Seuss said. “We are still working and hoping and praying the city will come to their senses.”

The City Council meets tonight, Sept. 14, and Seuss said she and kitchen allies “plan to have speakers again like the last two months we’ve had speakers. Not criticizing at all the city —  only praising Mary’s, which has been our focus.”

At council meetings this year where speakers have come out to talk up the kitchen, the chambers has been filled with people with no shortage of personal stories about how the kitchen helped them or others. 

[Read: Community Rallies Behind Mary’s Kitchen at Orange City Council Meeting]

“We have such overwhelming support by the community that I would think they would at least think about reconsidering the termination,” Seuss said. “But who knows?”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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