Cypress politicians are launching an investigation to find out who disclosed secret voting results from a closed session meeting to a local newspaper.
The Event-News Enterprise reported earlier this month that the Cypress City Council agreed to enter a mediation over a voting rights lawsuit that’s been routinely pushing cities across the county to adopt by-district voting.
While it’s unclear exactly when council members allegedly voted in secret to enter mediation, the last time the lawsuit was scheduled for closed session was at their Aug. 28 special meeting. No solid action was reported by the city attorney.
Mediation typically means a third party comes in to help both sides come to some sort of agreement.
Legal threats have forced cities throughout Orange County, including Fullerton, Anaheim and Mission Viejo to switch to district elections but last year Cypress and Brea officials decided to take a stand against changing their election system.
The city’s also facing a lawsuit from CalAware — a transparency advocacy group — for allegedly violating the Brown Act, California’s chief open government meeting law, by secretly deciding on March 14, 2022 against switching to district elections.
Council members voted 4-1 Sept. 25 to open an investigation to find out who leaked this information to the newspaper since it was supposed to be confined to just the city council, city attorney and city manager.
“Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was a person in the room. I don’t know. Maybe there’s a bug in the room. We’re not investigators,” Mayor Anne Mallari said during the meeting.
“Just like in a business, if you have something go wrong in your business, you figure out what happened so it doesn’t happen again.”
The city is slated to look for a third-party organization to conduct the investigation and a separate entity to oversee that investigation into the source of the leak.
Councilmember David Burke voted against launching the investigation, saying the leaked information was not “particularly sensitive” and it seems like it got out accidentally.
“Why shouldn’t we pause and try and gain a better understanding of the facts before taking drastic steps like launching a divisive investigation or openly accusing council members of breaking the law?” Burke said.
Councilmember Frances Marquez voted for the investigation, but said it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“If we’re using taxpayer dollars for this investigation, the public should be aware of what’s happening as well,” Marquez said. “They should be able to see the findings.”
Marquez was the dissenting vote in closed session vote to reject the legal threat the city received in an effort to switch to district elections. She was censured last year in part for allegedly revealing closed session information on January 10, 2022.
Cypress was served the original lawsuit by the Southwest Voter Registration Project more than two years ago.
The lawsuit, filed by Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman, alleges the at-large voting system disenfranchises Asian American voters in the city.
Shenkman spoke at Tuesday’s meeting during a public comment, saying he knows who leaked the information but that he’s “not a snitch.”
“I do not want to allow an innocent party to face accusations when they shouldn’t,” Shenkman said. “I’m telling you now that none of the council members — I know this for a fact — none of the council members had anything to do with the Event-News Enterprise receiving that information.”
Councilmember Bonnie Peat said the leak puts all closed session discussions in jeopardy.
“The discussion that in my mind when I read the article was — I cannot trust my fellow council members,” Peat said. “I am not comfortable speaking in closed session about items and talking about anything because I don’t know what happens outside that conference room. That is not where we want to be.”
Last Friday, Mallari released a letter written to the news outlet saying that reporting on the confidential information breaches public trust.
“The Event-News Enterprise’s reporting of confidential closed session votes is regrettable, inconsistent with ethical journalism principles, and makes an already difficult situation more divisive,” she wrote in the letter.
Cypress City Attorney Fred Galante and Shenkman, attorneys on opposite sides of the voting rights lawsuit, released a joint letter condemning the leak.
“The disclosure of confidential closed-session information has the potential to disadvantage the City and present an obstacle to frank, productive discussion in closed session and between litigants working to explore potential resolutions that benefit the public,” the letter reads.
Shenkman has routinely represented voting rights groups in lawsuits across the state and has garnered a reputation for forcing cities to switch their election systems.
In at-large elections, residents citywide can vote for as many candidates as there are council openings. That means if two seats on the council are up for grabs, residents can vote for two candidates.
But in by-district elections, residents can only vote for one candidate to represent the district they live in.
Cities across the state have switched to district elections after only a single letter from Shenkman, but Cypress has been one of the few to put up a fight over the past two years.
The issue should return to council for further discussion during the Oct. 23 council meeting.
“If this information was leaked and we don’t know who it is or how it got out, we need to figure that out so that additional information isn’t leaked or bigger information isn’t leaked,” Mallari said. “I owe that to you as an elected representative, and I think we owe that to each other to take a look at this.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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