Laguna Beach council’s closed session and leaks violated Brown Act, district attorney says

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Signs outside Laguna Beach City Hall direct visitors to check-in at the Council Chambers amid a COVID-19 case surge. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office found significant evidence Laguna Beach city councilmembers violated the Brown Act during a June 29 closed session discussion of Hotel Laguna and subsequent leaks.

In a Sept. 23 letter, Senior Deputy District Attorney Steven Schriver wrote that councilmembers failed to properly notify the public of the closed session and scope of the item discussed in the meeting. Schriver also noted that Councilmember George Weiss violated the Brown Act by disclosing confidential information with the public. Weiss has admitted to sharing confidential information about Hotel Laguna’s stop-work order with environmental advocate Mark Fudge and former mayor Paul Freeman.

“Well, I think it’s a victory for transparency,” Weiss said. “I unfortunately don’t necessarily like the circumstances under which that’s achieved, but it’s a good thing.” 

Mayor Bob Whalen declined to comment and City Attorney Phil Kohn was not available to respond to a request Friday.

City officials have reached out to the District Attorney’s Office to review the evidence, discuss their findings, and the safeguards being proposed, City Manager Shohreh Dupuis said in a prepared statement.

“We regret that we received this letter from the District Attorney without having the opportunity to first discuss the matter with them and our City Attorney,Dupuis said. 

Violations of the Brown Act undermine government transparency and citizen’s faith in their government’s legislative process, Schriver wrote in the letter.

“I take responsibility for what I did, but I didn’t violate the Brown Act,” Weiss said. “When I couldn’t get an answer about what happened in closed session in follow up emails on the renovation of Hotel Laguna, or, an explanation of why the Planning Commission, Coastal Commission wouldn’t review this stuff, I had to go out and look to ask people, but my talking to those people didn’t actually violate the Brown Act because it wasn’t a protected topic.” 

The City Council voted 3-2 on Aug. 10 to censure Weiss for disclosing information from a closed session meeting about Hotel Laguna. Weiss has defended his actions, saying the closed session’s agenda noticed discussion of litigation regarding Hotel Laguna but the City Council was instead asked to concur with staffers’ decision to partially withdraw a stop-work order at the historic hotel.

In his lettter to Weiss, Schriver reiterated closed session proceedings are endowed with the privilege of confidentiality.

“This allows attendees to speak with candor, debate freely, and gather necessary information without risk of public reprobation,” Schriver wrote.

The letter outlines safeguards that City Council is required to follow in order to prevent future public meeting law violations to avoid further action by prosecutors: 

  • The City Council must properly notice and conduct closed session meetings
  • Record its closed sessions for six months
  • Retain those recordings for one year

Fudge said Friday that more needed to be done to improve trust and transparency at city hall. 

“It’s a good start, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” Fudge said. “And the problem is that the City made decisions in the dark of the night behind closed doors, shutting the public out from participation. And then proceeded with those plans and permits for a hotel to open. And right now the District Attorney didn’t suggest that we reverse this process, just said that there’s substantial evidence of it, and they won’t go any further, if everyone follows the rules.” 

Weiss felt that the OCDA letter noting that the closed session may have violated the Brown Act will help improve transparency.

“I think this is good news for the city, good news for the residents,” Weiss said. “I ran on a platform to provide more transparency to how the city operates and clearly this identifies issues related to that that have to be addressed. Hopefully, we can work as a better city council and work more collaboratively than we’ve been over the last year.”

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Time to recall Weiss. He’s nothing but trouble for the city, I’ve never met a more disingenuous individual. Shame Laguna Residents First and Village Laguna didn’t do their research before pushing such a troubled individual for a council position. He continues to lie and only wants to make himself appear to be the savior. I continue to be disappointed that the independent allows his wife a platform to share their “pillow talk” without disclosing their relationship. So much for transparency.

    I fully support the actions of the city in both allowing work to resume at the hotel, and for censuring George. This ridiculous witch hunt against the Hotel Laguna and Moe is a waste of time and pure harassment if you ask me.

  2. So everyone in that room is guilty?
    Nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong?
    One more reason to have the greater political world FOFLOL at bizarro Laguna.
    As Ollie said to Stanley: “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”
    I remember asking in an earlier column why they ALL didn’t realize the mischief that was going down, just get up and walk out of the room to avoid complications, legal entanglements?
    H.L. Mencken said that you get the government you deserve, and get it good and hard.
    He also said that “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”
    Or howsabout : “A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”
    Start ordering now (Amazon Prime is getting busy), avoid the holiday rush, buy as many Fickle Finger of Fate trophies as officials in that room, no need for the “Envelope Please” ritual.
    Might want to order a few more as inventory, obviously incompetence and/or malfeasance will raise its ugly head again eventually. Cheaper by the dozen.
    And show the City Attorney and his firm the door, hand him his well-earned FFF on the way out. He’s earned it!

  3. Thanks to the Indy for covering this serious governance Brown Act violation. Elected’s Kempf, Blake, Whalen and our city manager and city attorney have shown us they will violate transparency laws and do not care about public trust. Sad state of government affairs in Laguna Beach today.

  4. Charles, do you not find it disingenuous when the city council lies to the public?

    The article here says, “councilmembers failed to properly notify the public of the closed session and scope of the item discussed in the meeting.”

    Whereas the actual letter reads “…there is substantial evidence that the City Council Members violated the Brown Act with respect to the public notice of the closed session and/or the scope of the matters considered during the meeting”

    Sounds like the disingenuous individuals are the ones who think its ok to hold a closed-door meeting and lie to the public about the agenda of that meeting. We know this to be true because the DA has reviewed the actual evidence. So much for transparency, indeed.

    Now, was George’s violation of the Brown Act before or after Peter, Sue and Bob all violated the Brown Act with their dishonest meeting agenda? Would George have violated the Brown Act and subsequently been censured by Peter, Sue and Bob had those 3 not first violated the Brown Act?

    All one needs to do is review the timeline and you will see which council members are disingenuous.

  5. Unfortunately the author missed a huge difference between the DA finding the City Council VIOLATED the Brown Act and that the DA found POTENTIAL evidence that Weiss violated the Brown Act. Words do matter. Violating and potentially violating are very different things and she needs to clarify that.

    I was dismayed to see that the City Manager chose to lead with Weiss’s potential violation instead of their actual violation in the information in their city weekly newsletter. She can spin it any way she wants but they actually violated the Brown Act and will have to face the consequences. If they hadn’t violated the Brown Act Weiss would never have had to expose it. Shame on the City Council for jumping to conclusions and censuring Weiss before the information was complete. That censure is now bogus.

  6. It’s worth noting that the DA issued his letter without any discussion with the City Manager or anyone on the Council except George. That conversation is in the works, and it will be helpful to see what develops. Meanwhile, the DA’s letter made it clear that George violated the Brown Act. In the interests of transparency, it would also be helpful to see the letter that George sent to the DA. Or we could just rush to judgment based on facts that are not in evidence.

  7. Wow. What a spin Chris. Potential violation is NOT the same as substantial violation unless you are biased towards the city spinning it any way it wants. Sad that you see it that way. You need to actually see it through clear glasses.

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