Frances Marquez, often the dissenting voice on Cypress’s City Council, is expected to be censured tonight as the city faces a lawsuit for violating California’s open government meeting law, the Brown Act.
The expected censure comes as questions swirl about how transparent Cypress city hall and its council members really are.
Marquez has most recently come under fire from colleagues on the dais for allegedly not turning over all her records as part of a public records request.
“We’re making the newspapers for all the wrong reasons,” said Mayor Paulo Morales at a special meeting on June 10 when the council called for a discussion to censure Marquez.
“I want people to understand this has never been about – using again, Councilmember Marquez’s terms – silencing her.”
Marquez has repeatedly said the efforts are trying to keep her quiet as the city deals with controversial issues like the transparency lawsuit and threats of election lawsuits.
Cypress City Council members did not respond to requests for comment except for Marquez.
Marquez is expected to be censured for allegedly not responding to public records requests, disclosing closed session information, violating the city’s civility, conduct and governance policy, violating the city’s code of conduct and the city charter.
“It is the duty of all Council Members to act in the public’s interest; respect good governance processes; and perform their duties professionally and ethically,” reads a staff report attached to a June 10 meeting agenda. “Council Members have spoken to Council Member Marquez on multiple occasions, without success, to try to resolve concerns regarding her misconduct.”
But in a Friday statement, Marquez said the move is nothing more than a move to silence her.
“I have complied with the (Public Records Act) request. The censure is a political stunt by city manager Peter Grant, Mayor (Paulo) Morales, Mayor Pro Tem (Anne) Hertz, and Councilmembers (Jon) Peat and (Scott) Minikus to discredit me and try to make me resign,” she said in a Friday statement.
At a special meeting on June 10 where council members placed an item to censure Marquez at the June 27 meeting, the councilwoman said she turned over all the records.
But City Attorney Fred Galante refuted those claims.
Marquez also said at that meeting 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.
“They’re gaslighting the public into believing that I blew a statutory deadline the city could have easily met by writing a letter within 10 days, letting requesters know the disclosures would be made,” she said.
The council recently instituted a new electronic communications policy intended to further residents’ right to access public records and compliance with California’s public records law three days after they held a special meeting where they called for Marquez to be censured.
At the June 13 city council meeting, some residents questioned if Marquez was trying to hide records, while others others defended her.
In March, City council members voted 4-1 to adopt a civility, conduct and governance policy to establish rules of decorum – which also carries penalties for violations, like having a council member removed from a committee.
Marquez was the dissenting vote and initially refused to sign the policy.
“I hesitated because I knew they were trying to stop me from doing the job I was elected to do and also because I was concerned about the First Amendment violations, not just towards me, but I was really worried about the public,” she said in her statement.
She eventually did sign the policy after adding a written statement below her signature that said she agrees to sign as long as it doesn’t interfere with her abilities as an elected official.
According to the policy, its purpose is intended to help “ensure that civic engagement and local democracy continue to flourish in Cypress.”
“The Policy is not intended to deprive any person of his/her right to freedom of expression, but to promote, to the extent possible and reasonable, open dialogue and positive communications while discouraging intimidating, demeaning, volatile, hostile or aggressive actions,” reads the policy.
Under the policy, the council has the discretion to impose sanctions on their colleagues if there is a violation, including censure as well as suspension of salary and benefits, office travel and ceremonial titles.
Sanctions can also include removal from committees, commissions and regional boards.
Read the full policy here.
This is not the first time the council has considered censuring Marquez, who was first elected in 2020.
On Feb. 14, the council decided not to take action on a discussion item regarding placing a resolution on a future meeting agenda to censure Marquez for allegedly disclosing closed session information.
“This latest attempt – like the ones before it – only strengthens my determination to continue to insist on transparency, and for elected officials to listen and respond to what residents want them to do,” Marquez said in her statement.
Meanwhile, the city is facing a Brown Act lawsuit.
The lawsuit stems from a March 14 closed session vote by council members to reject a letter alleging Cypress is violating California’s voting rights act by disenfranchising Asian American voters and demanding they switch to district elections.
Fred Galante, the city attorney, has disputed Brown Act violation allegations in the closed-door decision to reject the letter and maintain their current at-large election system.
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 only council member to vote against rejecting the letter and has publicly said that the council majority does not want to switch to district elections because they worry it would possibly put them in the same district as each other.
The records request Marquez allegedly failed to comply with was related to the closed session refusal to go to district elections.
The city received a second demand letter from the same lawyer, Kevin Shenkman, earlier this month to move to district elections, claiming that the at-large election system disenfranchises Asian-American voters and violates California’s Voting Rights Act — the same allegations from the first demand letter.
The new letter lists two local residents, Malini Nagpal and Katie Shapiro, as plaintiffs. It also lists the Southwest Voter Education Project, which has been successfully taking voting rights lawsuits to California cities for years.
“Given the racially polarized election for Cypress’ city council elections, we urge the City to voluntarily change its at-large system of electing its City Council,” the letter reads. “Otherwise, on behalf of residents within the jurisdiction, we will be forced to seek judicial relief.”
The letter demands a response by July 21.
Read the full letter here.
Council members called for Marquez’s censure at a special meeting on Friday June 10 where they directed the councilwoman to comply with the public records request.
At that meeting, Marquez spoke out about the way the meeting was scheduled and said she gets pushback everytime she asks questions.
“No one knew about this meeting,” she said. “This is indicative of a city that does not want participation.”
Morales said at the meeting that she has every right to ask questions and that the council encourages her to do so.
“It is not an issue that she’s the only one asked the tough question. A lot of times we have discussed these things prior to and before and we have asked a lot of those very same questions,” he said.
A resolution attached to the June 10 agenda lists Marquez’s alleged violations that have spurred the efforts to censure her.
“What’s listed on this resolution is just some, but the more egregious ones that we as a council, as a staff, city leaders, city manager and city clerk have had to deal with for the last year and half,” Morales said.
Marquez responded by saying that she isn’t being given due process.
In her statement, Marquez said the allegations have not been proven.
The meeting itself is not available to be watched on the city website as part of their council meeting video index.
Only the meeting’s audio recording is recorded, unlike regular city council meetings in Cypress.
In order to hear that audio, residents must request it from the city.
In an email Wednesday, Cypress City Clerk Alisha Farnell said there are multiple reasons why the meeting audio is not posted on the website, including staffing issues.
“The City does not have full-time video broadcasting staff and additionally we are half-staffed on Fridays, which is when the June 10 meeting was held,” she wrote.
The special meeting was held three days before the council held a regularly scheduled meeting. Videos of regularly scheduled meetings are linked on the city website.
“Secondly, the City contracts with a video streaming vendor to stream, index, and host broadcast meeting videos, which are archived online (on their site on the City’s behalf) for public viewing. Meetings that are not broadcast are not digitally transmitted to our streaming vendor and are therefore not archived on their website,” she continued.
Most other cities in OC have no problem posting the videos of special meetings on their website.
Voice of OC has requested that audio. The full audio can be downloaded and listened to through this link.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.