The Laguna Beach City Council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to censure Councilmember George Weiss, but not Councilmember Toni Iseman, for disclosing information from a closed session meeting about Hotel Laguna.
Weiss has admitted to sharing information from a June 29 closed session that included a council vote to partially withdraw a stop-work order on Hotel Laguna, during a meeting with coastal advocate Mark Fudge and Paul Freeman, a former mayor and consultant for Hotel Laguna’s lease owner.
“Just because you don’t like the outcome of a meeting doesn’t mean you get to subvert state laws,” Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf said. “You can’t just tell anyone anything out of closed session.”
Kempf added that all councilmembers are trained on requirements of the Brown Act and regularly receive reminders from the City Attorney to abide by them.
Mayor Bob Whalen recommended censuring Iseman and Weiss last week, saying their actions undermined the City Council’s ability to govern.
Weiss has stood by earlier statements that he believes the closed session discussion on Hotel Laguna was improperly concealed under the guise of “consideration of whether to initiate litigation.” City Attorney Phil Kohn never mentioned a potential lawsuit during the meeting, Weiss said. The councilmembers who voted to censure him haven’t confirmed or denied this claim.
“I think it’s wrong to bring censure to me, Bob,” Weiss said. “I think it will hurt the City and the Council.”
There are legal channels for a councilmember to take if they observe something in closed session that they believe to be illegal, Kohn said. For example, a councilmember could refuse to participate and walk out of the meeting. A councilmember could also bring information of suspected wrongdoing to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office or the Orange County Grand Jury.
Fudge has described Weiss as a whistleblower who shouldn’t be censured for bringing the public’s attention to a decision to partially withdraw a red tag at Hotel Laguna ahead of review by the California Coastal Commission.
“There are two solutions for these closed session problems,” Weiss said during Tuesday’s meeting. “First, there needs to be greater transparency and open council sessions with the public so agenda items aren’t secreted away in closed sessions that fail to meet the Brown Act’s criteria of closed sessions. Second, there needs to be an equal treatment of all businesses and residents in Laguna, not exceptions made without the public’s input.”
On Tuesday, Iseman again denied disclosing any confidential information during the meeting with Weiss, Freeman, and Fudge. Whalen dropped his recommendation to censure her saying he would take her statements at face value.
Councilmember Peter Blake disagreed with Whalen’s decision to not move forward with censuring Iseman, adding that her decision to privately meet with Fudge—who has appealed elements of Hotel Laguna’s remodel to the Coastal Commission—was more than a sufficient reason for censure.
“Going to a meeting with many people who know a whole lot about what’s going on in town, that’s important and it’s part of my job,” Iseman said.
Despite the City Attorney’s assertion the closed session complied with state government transparency laws, Iseman said she believes the closed session approval is a Brown Act violation. She regrets abstaining from the vote. “I believe that closed sessions for the purpose of land use decisions are clearly illegal,” Iseman said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m going to be making sure that we don’t use closed session to make land use decisions that needs to be done in public.”
This is the second time in five months that the panel has admonished one of their own over conduct. Councilmember Peter Blake was censured in March for referring to Iseman with derogatory language. This marked the first time the City Council had enforced a decorum and civility policy adopted in 2019.
There are very good reasons for pubic governing bodies to hold closed sessions, including matters of human resources, real estate transactions, and litigation, said John P. Pelissero, senior scholar in government at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
“[Elected officials] really have an ethical responsibility to keep this confidential,” Pelissero said. “They can’t simply decide on their own to share something from closed session and break protocol.”
He added that a land use decision that’s the topic of litigation would fall within the parameters of discussion allowed behind closed doors.
Although city leaders are split over whether the meeting was properly noticed, legal experts observing the censure proceedings have pointed to a section of Brown Act that forbids agencies from punishing individuals for “expressing an opinion concerning the propriety or legality of actions taken by a legislative body of a local agency in closed session, including disclosure of the nature and extent of the illegal or potentially illegal action.”
The City Council directed the City Attorney to prepare a resolution censuring Weiss. The Independent has requested the document but it wasn’t available as of press time.View Our User Comment Policy