At Friday’s special meeting, the council directed Council member Frances Marquez to comply with the records law and placed an item on the council’s June 27 meeting agenda to censure Marquez — an official condemnation from the rest of the council that requires a majority vote.
The public records requests and the censure stem from the city’s refusal to change the way it elects city council members.
At a March 14 meeting, the city council voted behind closed doors 4-1 to reject a letter they received from Malibu-based Attorney Kevin Shenkman demanding the city switch to district elections, allegeding the current at-large voting system disenfranchises minorities.
In at-large elections, residents citywide can vote for as many candidates as there are council openings. So if two seats on the council are up for grabs, residents can vote for two candidates.
In by-district elections, residents can only vote for one candidate to represent the area and neighborhood they live in.
Marquez was the dissenting vote and is now facing public pressure from her colleagues to turn over records related to the secret vote in a request filed by Californians Aware (CalAware), a statewide open government advocacy group.
CalAware is the same group suing the city for allegedly violating the state’s open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, when council members secretly voted to reject district elections March 14.
At Friday’s special meeting, Marquez called the move to censure her a “political stunt” by her colleagues.
At a special meeting in December, Marquez said her colleagues didn’t want to switch voting methods because they might lose their spot on the council.
“Someone will be forced to have to sit out the next election. Why would members comply with the law when they are benefited from a system that works for them,” she said.
Staff recommends censuring Marquez for allegedly violating California law by failing to respond to records requests and failing to respond to these requests in a timely manner, according to the staff report.
After the city clerk received records requests from CalAware and Fortis LLP, a law firm based in Costa Mesa, Marquez either failed to hand over the information to the city clerk in a timely manner or did not respond at all, according to the staff report.
The records request required information from all city council members, and Marquez was the only member to not respond within 10 days.
“The biggest problem with a lot of this is the rest of us on the council were all asked to comply and … to provide information off of our personal computers,” Mayor Paulo Morales said at the June 10 council meeting.
“We were given a deadline at the request of the city manager of which to comply which keeps the city itself out of a position of being sued or at least to where the city and the city clerk can respond to the records request in a timely fashion and in compliance with state law,” he said.
However, Marquez said she provided all the request documents, but the Cypress City Attorney Fred Galante refuted her claim, saying that the records requests are incomplete from Marquez.
Marquez also said she hired an outside attorney to aid her with providing the records because she does not trust the city’s administration. Additionally, she said her responses were late because her attorney contracted COVID-19.
“The city has received all the documents from me,” Marquez said at the council meeting. “This meeting is a political stunt. It’s a form of harassment from everybody here on the dias. My attorneys and I have worked together with City Attorney Fred Galante throughout this process. Attorney Galante was fine with the timeline process. My attorney got COVID during the process, and Attorney Galante was aware that the work would take more time.”
Galante held that because Marquez did not comply within 10 days of the records requests that she is in violation of state law.
The council voted to require that Marquez respond immediately to public records requests filed by CalAware and other entities. The council also voted to require all members adhere to public records request response deadlines, which is 10 days.
The city has also come under fire recently from CalAware for allegedly violating California’s open meetings law, also known as the Brown Act, after meeting in secret 11 times to discuss the city’s election method, according to the lawsuit filed by CalAware.
CalAware filed a lawsuit against the city for preventing the public from participating in the discussions regarding potential moving the city to by-district elections.
Marquez said the requested information had to do with email correspondence regarding the city’s discussion about implementing district elections.
“I can’t help but ask myself about the parallels that I see here with the city located next to us, the city of Anaheim. These public records act requests are related to going to district elections,” Marquez said at the meeting. “We are being sued because my colleagues don’t want to go to district elections.”
Council also approved two items to require all members to adhere to Public Records Act response deadlines and hire special legal counsel to assist in responding to Public Records Act requests. Future council meetings will include an item about public records request procedures in addition to the discussion about censuring Marquez.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.