Alleged Brown Act violations would be investigated
Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell said his office would investigate alleged Brown Act violations – if they were brought to his office.
A Grass Valley resident is alleging that a City Council housing committee violated the state’s open meeting laws when members met behind closed doors to discuss the city’s residential building standards.
The decision follows allegations by resident and former Grass Valley councilman Steve Enos, who raised the issue during Tuesday night’s scheduled council meeting. That night, the council voted 4-1 to remove requirements for affordable housing, a decision it based on the committee’s recommendations.
Enos charged that first-term Councilwoman Yolanda Cookson participated in those committee discussions, even though her presence on that committee constituted a quorum of the City Council; council members Jan Arbuckle and Chauncey Posten were already on the committee.
California’s open meeting laws – governed by what is known as the Ralph M. Brown Act – require committees to abide by the same rules that govern a full legislative body, once it includes enough for a quorum, or, in this case, three of the five elected council members.
Cookson said she attended a Jan. 7 meeting of the city’s affordable housing subcommittee and participated in that meeting.
“I went to the meeting,” Cookson said, adding she was cleared to attend the meeting by city staff. “Obviously, myself and staff have learned I can’t attend those meetings. I had no ill intent.”
City Administrator Dan Holler – whose previous position was administrator in Douglas County, Nevada – confirmed staff did give Cookson the go-ahead to attend. In retrospect, Holler said, her attendance was a mistake.
The council should void its 4-1 decision to remove an inclusionary housing policy, partially because of Cookson’s attendance at the Jan. 7 meeting and partially due to the committee’s reporting practices, Enos said.
He contends the affordable housing subcommittee, established in 2007, is what the Brown Act calls a “standing subcommittee,” meaning all of their minutes and attendance records must be made available to the public in addition to a public notice of the meeting 72 hours before it is held.
“We don’t know what they’ve been doing since 2007,” Enos said. “They should not be doing the people’s business behind closed doors.”
On Tuesday night, he asked the council to postpone a decision on affordable housing because of the alleged violation.
On advice from Myers-Nave, the city’s law firm, the council went ahead with the vote and removed the affordable housing policy 4-1.
The subcommittee didn’t have to meet the standards laid out for standing subcommittees, Holler said, because under the Brown Act, the affordable housing subcommittee is ad hoc.
That means only council members and staff may sit on the subcommittee, and their public reporting standards are much more lax.
Legally, the subcommittee fits Holler’s description as an ad-hoc committee, agreed
media lawyer Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
That is, until Cookson attended, bumping the attendance up from a sub-quorum to a quorum and rendering the meeting illegal.
Both Cookson and Holler contend no discussion at the Jan. 7 meeting had any bearing on the Tuesday decision, so the vote should be allowed to stand, they said.
The District Attorney’s office would investigate Enos’ complaints if they were delivered, said D.A. Cliff Newell, though he had not received any information by 4 p.m. Thursday.
Newel did not indicate how long such an investigation would take.
The punishment for breaking the Brown Act, if such a violation is found to have occurred, ranges from a letter of admonition to charges depending on the severity of the violation, Newell said.
To contact Staff Writer Kyle Magin, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.
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