CNPA counsel: Nevada City consultant’s Brown Act interpretation ‘exact opposite of law’
The Nevada City City Council and about 30 members of the public gathered at Seaman’s Lodge in Pioneer Park for a special governance training meeting Monday morning, led by Gerry Preciado, president and consultant for 34th Street, Inc.
The meeting was originally planned as a private event but was made open to the public last Tuesday. On Friday, a discussion to reschedule the next regular council meeting, set for Dec. 10 when Mayor Reinette Senum will face possible sanctioning, was added to the agenda.
Preciado’s government training session came into question however, after he advised the council that Monday’s meeting would not be subject to the Brown Act had the second agenda item not been added.
“My position is based on the definition of a ‘meeting’ in the Brown Act,” Preciado said in a text message to The Union. “Zero business was to be discussed so it did not qualify as a meeting under the Brown Act.”
California News Publishers Association legal counsel Jim Ewert said that interpretation does not comport with the law.
“There’s no case law, there’s no interpretative authority that he’ll be able to identify that supports his interpretation,” Ewert said. “His interpretation would be the exact opposite of the law.”
According to Ewert, the state constitution requires interpretation of the Brown Act to be broad when it favors public access and narrow when it limits public access.
“There are very limited instances and training is not one of them,” Ewert said. “If the legislature wanted to allow them to do that they would have put it in the law.”
According to Nevada City City Attorney Hal DeGraw, the decision whether to make the meeting public if the second agenda item was not added would have been a judgment call.
“I don’t think there’s a specific section in the Brown Act,” DeGraw said. “I just think it’s generally understood that training sessions don’t have to be agendized as long as no action is being taken and it’s just an informative measure for the council.”
The Brown Act, which governs California public meetings, does spell out certain specific instances where council members can meet in a quorum (with a majority of the council present) without it constituting a meeting. Those instances are limited to individual contacts, conferences, community meetings, other legislative bodies, standing committees, social or ceremonial events and grand jury testimony (See below for more on these exceptions).
According to Ewert, based on Preciado’s and DeGraw’s interpretation, the council would be able to go on trainings, workshops or retreats regularly and discuss whatever they want, as long as they say they are not discussing public business.
“He’s certainly getting off on the wrong foot (in regard to governance training) if he’s going to talk about interpreting the Brown Act,” Ewert said. “Why do they want to meet in secret?”
During the training session, Preciado discussed best practices for leadership, serving the public, communication, the Brown Act, handling differing opinions and the issue of speech.
Vice Mayor Erin Minett’s concerns that Senum made public statements that did not reflect the will of the council, which ultimately led to the vote to discuss sanctioning the mayor, were not discussed at the special meeting. Preciado did however touch upon some questions he said council members should ask themselves before making comments that dissent from the council’s official position.
“Is what I’m about to say going to benefit us as a collective, or is it going to benefit me and make me look good in the eyes of the people?” Preciado said. “Is this about me or is this about the greater good of the community? That’s a good litmus test.”
Preciado said while it’s permissible for a council member to speak his or her mind on an issue, in practice even if an official prefaces comments with a reminder that they’re sharing their personal opinion, the public will still see it as an official statement of the council.
“I believe you can never take off your council hat, your mayor hat,” Preciado said. “They just never come off, no matter how hard you try.”
While a discussion to change the date of the next regular council meeting was on the agenda, the matter never came to a vote after no one offered a second for the motion, meaning the meeting is still scheduled for Dec. 10. Several people speaking during public commentary Monday insisted the date remain the same because they’ve already changed their plans to accommodate.
According to Council member Duane Strawser, who made the motion to change dates, some residents complained the Dec. 10 meeting was the same day as Grass Valley’s meeting and even accused the council of choosing the date on purpose to stifle discussion, despite the meeting being scheduled in advance.
Public response to the training was mixed, with some people noting the presentation was interesting and informative ,while others believed it had not gone far enough.
“It’s pretty basic that we all have differing opinions,” Itara O’Connell said. “Who doesn’t know that?”
Several council members said the training was welcomed and helpful.
“We all need to be reminded of what we can do and what we can’t do and how to help run the city,” Minett said.
“I think it gave us some clarity,” Senum said. “The next meeting is going to be interesting.”
To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.
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