An OC Superior Court Judge determined that Mission Viejo City Council members didn’t violate transparency law when they negotiated Stein Mart redevelopment plans behind closed doors.

OC Superior Court Judge James Crandall’s ruling denied a lawsuit against the Mission Viejo City Council Jan. 13 after a property owner challenged city hall secrecy surrounding a land deal purchase.

It comes 11 months after Mission Viejo city officials began closed-session negotiations to purchase a Stein Mart building in the city’s downtown shopping center. 

The property owner claimed such discussions violated the Brown Act, a California law that governs open meetings.

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Jann Kronick-Gath — who owns the Michaels property near the Stein Mart building — first raised the allegations May 2021, claiming city officials failed to disclose necessary information before and during negotiations with Charles V. Kinstler II, the previous owner of the Stein Mart property.

[Read: Downtown Mission Viejo Property Owner Challenges City Hall Secrecy in Court]

Randall Leff, an attorney from Ervin Cohen & Jessup who represented Kronick-Gath, said they will likely not be appealing the decision.

The opening brief for the case accused city officials of secretly negotiating with Kinstler before the official exclusive rights agreement was approved by the council. 

The Brown Act only allows for price and terms of payment on land deals to be discussed behind closed doors, along with a few other exceptions like lawsuits or potential lawsuits faced by cities.

The lawsuit references one study sketch, from October 2020, that lays out redevelopment plans near the Stein Mart building — months before negotiations formally began in February 2021.

Kronick-Gath also argued that the city entered a preliminary negotiation agreement in January 2021 without public notice, but city officials say the move is within the city manager’s power.

“[The council] failed to identify statutorily required items relating to the real estate negotiations at issue, approved agreements relating to the eventual deal without substantive discussion among its members, and issued agendas that enabled the city council to receive formal presentations regarding the vision plan’s development without providing the public with any notice of these presentations or an opportunity to participate,” reads the opening brief from Kronick-Gath.

The city argued it followed state transparency law during the land sale. 

“This case is about a wealthy commercial landlord misusing a public interest law to thwart the public’s interest in revitalization,” reads Mission Viejo’s court filing, adding that residents were properly notified of the closed door meetings about the land deal.

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City officials also argued that the council’s actions were guided by residents. 

“After many months of outreach, surveys, workshops, and meetings, the citizens of Mission Viejo prepared and presented the city council with their vision for the future of the city,” reads the city’s opposition filing. “Nearly four years later, the city was finally presented with its first opportunity to implement its citizens’ vision. No sooner did the city begin negotiations than did [Kronick-Gath] … filed this lawsuit using the Brown Act, a public interest law, to thwart the public’s interest in a revitalized City core.”

The Stein Mart building is part of a larger downtown renovation project that’s been in the works since 2007.

The city is aiming to redevelop the downtown shopping center and create a walkable area with restaurants.

The Mission Viejo City Council put forth more specific plans to create this vision in March 2017.

When the Stein Mart property went on the market, Kinstler approached city officials. The negotiation agreement between Kinstler and city officials officially began in February 2021, and the city bought the property in September 2021. 

Kronick-Gath also accused the city of improperly labeling a discussion of the vision plan on the April 13, 2021 council meeting, preventing the public from speaking on the item.

At this meeting, the council unanimously voted to extend the negotiation agreement with Kinstler. However, city officials also presented a report on the status and future of the vision plan, which was not listed on the agenda. 

In court filings, city attorneys argued that since no action was taken by the council, there was no violation in listening to the presentation.

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Another property owner in the shopping center had also come forward to support Kronick-Gath’s allegations toward the city. Eric Cernich, who owns the Party City and Trader Joe’s buildings near the Stein Mart, filed a declaration in support of Kronick-Gath.

“I have extreme concerns about the vision plan’s implementation, including its proposed conflicts with the CC&Rs [covenants, conditions and restrictions] and its resultant impact on the use, accessibility and value of our property and the village center as a whole,” the declaration reads. “I am also informed and believe that the other landowners in the area within and surrounding the village center share these concerns.”

Because of these reasons, Kronick-Gath asked the court to prevent the council from repeating these violations. This would include requiring the council to audio record future closed session meetings and preserve the audio to review when or if necessary.

However, Crandall, the judge, denied these requests because Kronick-Gath failed to demonstrate the Brown Act violations.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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