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.”View Our User Comment Policy