The Laguna Beach City Council has violated the Brown Act in regards to a closed session meeting earlier this year, according to a letter from the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
“Any violation of the Brown Act is extremely concerning, as it undermines not only transparency in government but faith in the legislative process,” reads a letter from Senior Deputy District Attorney Steven Schriver to Councilman George Weiss dated Sept. 21.
The Ralph M. Brown Act is the statewide law that governs open meetings for cities and counties and it mandates what can be discussed in closed sessions.
In another letter addressed to City Attorney Philip Kohn on Sept. 21, Schriver also states there is substantial evidence that the council members violated the Brown Act by improperly noticing for the public the discussion on Hotel Laguna renovations at their June 29 meeting.
“Of particular concern is the public notice that identified the subject of the meeting as consideration of whether to initiate litigation when the substance actually appears to have concerned lifting the stop-work order completing first-floor renovations to the Hotel Laguna and reopening the landmark’s restaurant,” reads the letter to Kohn.
In a Monday phone interview, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said city officials — including herself and the majority of the council — have not been contacted by the district attorney’s office or provided with evidence during the investigation.
“We don’t believe that there was a Brown Act violation and that’s why we are very eager to meet with the city at the district attorney’s office to review the evidence that they are referring to,” she said.
Dupuis added that the city is working on a response letter to the district attorney’s office and are going to meet with investigators after they respond.
The letters from Schriver also state that Weiss further violated the Brown Act by discussing what happened in the meeting to members of the public.
The city council voted 3-2 during a meeting in August to censure Weiss for revealing what happened during the June 29 closed session meeting.
Weiss acknowledged at the Aug. 10 meeting that he did disclose information about the session and argued that the closed session item on Hotel Laguna was not properly agendized and instead listed as anticipated litigation that was never discussed.
He even called on the county district attorney’s office to investigate the matter.
“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 at the Aug. 10 meeting.
Kohn, the city attorney, defended the closed session at the meeting, saying it was properly conducted but the district attorney’s office disagrees.
On Aug. 24, the city council publicly brought up the discussion on the Hotel Laguna renovations.
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.
Violations of the Brown Act can be addressed through criminal prosecution and civil proceedings, but instead the district attorney’s office is calling on the council to take remedial action.
Part of those actions will be for the council to record their closed session meetings for the next six months and keep them for a year. The district attorney is also calling on the city to ensure that notices for closed session meetings reflect what will actually be discussed.
“These measures will promote trust in the legislative process and maintain public confidence in the City Council itself. Should the City Council agree to implement these measures [the district attorney] will not pursue the matter any further,” reads the letter from the district attorney’s office.
Dupuis said the city has no problem implementing those safeguards, but wants to meet with the district attorney’s office first.
“We have no issues if those safeguards need to be implemented after we meet with the district attorney’s office — we’d be more than happy to implement them,” she said.
Dupuis also said the city “extremely values the importance of transparency.”
“We just need to make sure that we protect the city when there are matters related to potential litigation that cannot be legally disclosed in a public setting, and those are the items that are protected by the Brown Act,” she said.
The city council has until Oct. 8 to implement the safeguards and report back to Schriver, according to the letter to Kohn.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.