Ignoring Brown Act Meeting Rules
CalAware is a co-plaintiff in two cases challenging conspicuous and substantial alleged violations of the Ralph M. Brown Act.
Los Angeles Times and Californians Aware v. Southern California Regional Rail Authority
In 2015 CalAware joined the Times in suing Metrolink, the Los Angeles area rail transportation agency, challenging the legality of an emergency teleconference meeting that Metrolink’s board of directors held two months earlier, where it discussed a single item of business in closed session. The item it discussed was a design flaw that Metrolink had learned about during an investigation related to litigation filed against the agency after a February 2015 train crash. Metrolink argued that if the design flaw became known to potential bad actors, they could exploit it. Therefore, they used the Brown Act’s exemption allowing a closed to discuss “matters posing a threat to the security of public buildings, a threat to the security of essential public services, including water, drinking water, wastewater treatment, natural gas service, and electric service, or a threat to the public’s right of access to public services or public facilities.”
At a hearing in November 2016. the trial court denied our case in its entirety. Basically, the judge felt that Metrolink had the discretion to determine whether there was a real “emergency” situation that allowed it to go into closed session, and whether there was a situation that could pose a threat to Metrolink facilities and its riders. She ruled that she would not substitute her judgment for Metrolink’s. Since she found there was an emergency situation, Metrolink was excused from complying with any of the Brown Act’s other requirements, including the rules for holding meetings by teleconference. CalAware and the Times are awaiting a ruling from the the California Court of Appeal in their challenge to the trial court’s decision.
First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware v. City of Bakersfield
The First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware filed a joint lawsuit in December 2017 against the City of Bakersfield over its allegedly unlawful use of closed sessions. The lawsuit seeks a court declaration that the city council violated the Ralph M. Brown Act when it used closed sessions several months earlier about the city’s finances. The lawsuit also seeks a court order for the city to provide all records relating to the meetings and a court order to the city council to record all closed session meetings as a safeguard against future violations. The lawsuit also asks that the city pay for legal fees and any other costs associated with the lawsuit. The plaintiffs became involved after documents outlining the closed session discussions, leaked to them by an informed source, indicated that at least three meetings were held in closed session about revenue concerns and the possibility of pursuing a sales tax increase. These closed sessions were described on their agendas as being conferences with legal counsel regarding potential or existing litigation.
Under the Brown Act, financial discussions such as these may not be held in closed session. Based directly on the secret discussions, the city publicly announced in a December council meeting that due to retirement and health care costs, declining sales tax revenue and other factors, the city could see a budget deficit of $16 million by 2023 if immediate action wasn’t taken. The plaintiffs sent letters to the council requesting it to admit to violating the Brown Act, promise not to do it again, and provide all records relating to the closed sessions. Mayor Karen Goh responded that the city didn’t violate the Brown Act. Records were provided, but the majority of them had nothing to do with the challenged closed sessions and had been released afterward. The Kern County Superior Court has yet issued a ruling in the case.