Laguna Beach City Council censures George Weiss for closed session leak

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Laguna Beach Councilmember George Weiss. Courtesy of city of Laguna Beach

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.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe someone should have asked Mark Fudge why he threw these people, his usual allies and fellow travelers, under the proverbial bus? Why aren’t they or their sycophantic minions perturbed by this?
    He acts like he’s so savvy, didn’t it occur to him that he was in possession of closed session info and promulgating (making widely known) it could criminally jeopardize these council people including their effectiveness to serve, move HIS agenda?
    Just because someone comes into possession of leaked info doesn’t mean that you snitch or rat them out because it serves YOUR purpose.
    Seems like we have hubris gone wild here, coupled with it appears endless wealth, arrogance is axiomatic.
    This situation stinks, and squealing, turning on each other has polarized the city council even further—We, the People always suffer. More distrust, more fear and loathing in Laguna Beach government.
    As I asked last night and was never answered: What in the hell were ALL of you thinking, didn’t it occur to someone, anyone to ask the magic question: Why is this happening in closed session? Where is the paper trail, the provocation, hard evidence sustaining the need or requirement to have it discussed confidentially?
    Was closed session the ONLY option/venue, if so, why?
    If no provocation occurred, there’s no justification……then it could have been on the consent calendar, pulled if anyone wanted to talk about it or hear more.
    Why didn’t someone dig in their heels and yes, if necessary walk out of that back room? If none present saw that possibility, then we’re really in deep doo-doo. Worse if it never even crossed their minds, although cross-the-board, regarding our leadership I’m sure that sojourn is ALWAYS a short trip!
    Why didn’t Iseman and Weiss do that, exit, then at the reconvening of the open hearing portion announce their trepidation, report to the public regarding their mutual hesitancy?
    Embrace the jungle ride roller coaster, fasten your seatbelts, put on a helmet for BS protection, when you add the 2022 election cycle, the LRF initiative and the obvious, glaring acrimony/dysfunction among egotistical council members and staff/city attorney?
    Broken governance rife with personal, public disparagement, uncertainty fueled by free spending millionaires with personal agendas on both sides: Welcome to Humpty-Dumpty Land.

  2. Well , the Liberate Laguna developers got their money’s worth from their three council members. But this could well turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. And this is exactly why the residents need a voice that the LRF Ballot Initiative will give us. Why would the City Manager, the Liberate Laguna troika council members and the Director of Community Development keep “bending over backwards” or perhaps even forwards to a person who has shown that he is not to be trusted, according to some of the actions he took during the time that most of his corporate assets were under receivership as documented by the court appointed receiver. And now he is being sued again for what appears to me to be breach of contract in another unrelated real estate deal. As far as I know this case has not been adjudicated and yes one is innocent until found to be guilty but combine all of this with all the unpermitted work he has done and gotten after the fact permits it does seem that something is rotten in the sate of Denmark. Especially since the, in my view, illegal sham executive council meeting just to hide more sweetheart deals and avoid public scrutiny. George and Toni should be honored for helping us understand why the city council troika and for that matter the the city manager and some high level staff personnel no longer deserve our trust.

  3. I agree Chris. And it’s sad that despite the overwhelming request by speakers (at least 3/4 by my count) to withdraw the censure and look at the legality of the closed session itself, the Liberate Laguna Forward bloc of Sue/Peter/Bob had already made up their minds to censure. One more time they are not listening to residents or even reason. City Attorney Kohn gives them cover so they think they’re impervious to consequences of their potentially illegal actions. That 3/2 vote shows you how everything is going to go until we can replace Sue and Peter with council members who actually care about residents, transparency in government and fiscal responsibility not to mention getting rid of preferential treatment for developers. Sad day in Laguna for sure. DO NOT vote for any incumbants supported by Liberate Laguna Forward.

  4. If, say, Councilman Peter Blake had discussed that closed session with, say, any of the developers Chris Catsimanes, Michele Monda, and their allies love to hate, they would have led the charge to have him censured. And I would have agreed with them. This is not a complicated issue. Under the Brown Act, George Weiss had several courses of action if he thought that the closed session was inappropriate. He chose an illegal one, got caught, and was censured.

  5. Chris – So when are Blake, Whalen and Kempf going to censure themselves for repeatedly violating the Brown Act?

    Seems like their violations are every bit if not greater than Weiss’.

    Weiss disclosed what they were illegally doing and hiding from the public.

    They are the one’s who initiated these actions. If they’d reported their actions instead of hiding their illegal vote, none of this would have happened.

    So, Chris, where’s their censure and why aren’t you demanding it?

    PS. Whalen, Kempf, Blake, Dupuis and Kohn’s garters are in a gather precisely because Mr. Weiss exposed their illegal actions.

    If he’d revealed inaccurate information, they never would have had reason or cause to moved to censure him.

    Ergo – by their own admission, they’re guilty as sin of knowingly violating the Brown Act, altering the meeting’s agenda, voting on an act with public repercussions, not reporting it to the public, and then lying saying everything was above board – which most clearly it was not.

  6. Jerome Pudwill . . You throw references to The Brown Act around like you’re a partner at Stradling. So, if you’re so concerned – put your money where your wind-bag-mouth is and sue them to see who’s violating who. Or run for the office you criticize. Lil Chicken you are (I bet).

  7. IMO It’s time for Kohn and Rutan and Tucker to go. He has been there close to 40 years and his law firm and him are getting stale. We need a new firm and lawyer in that job that can offer fresh legal perspectives on how the city is operating. There are many firms that offer legal services to cities.

  8. I see nine people with attitudes here. I doubt any of you are going to influence anything any where without great organization. That’s what has been lacking in Laguna until the new regime. The old biddies who ran our town into the ground with antiquated policies need to move over and let new blood do good for once. Oy the constant kvetching. But they are sucessful in bullying one or two newbies like the Mondas.

  9. The Hotel Laguna closed December 2017 due to (guess what) litigation. Here we are almost four years of litigating and lost hotel revenue later, our iconic hotel remains closed. How long does it take to renovate a hotel? (Hint: much less than to litigate one, the Chinese can show us how.)

    This city council has once again lost sight of the mission to finish this hotel and open it for business, they are instead mired in self-righteous practice trial of Browns Rules and Perry Mason reruns. This council has chosen piety over progress, delay over cost and schedule, and conceit over community and businesses they represent. Rutan and Tucker are laughing all the way to the Bank.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if city council and staff shared a Hotel Laguna progress report with residents, rather than another dress rehearsal of Kabuki Theatre. Is the bar finished? Are the floors finished? What boxes are left unchecked? When is the Grand Opening? If staff and council need a how-to reference I recommend “Minecraft Construction for Dummies.”

    Enough theatre, actors take a rest, lets see a Hotel Laguna completion report.

  10. Council members MPT Kempf, Blake and Mayor Whalen and R&T city attorney Kohn’s decision to place such a concerning public interest and highly-controversial item on a closed session agenda with no factual reason or existing litigation issue speaks for itself. While there are legal questions surrounding this decision that should be reviewed by government oversight agencies (and hopefully this will be done), the silver lining may be that Laguna Beach residents/voters are now aware that three of our council members will not hesitate to use their powerful authority and our highly-paid legal counsel as they please to accommodate certain people in our community and without any accountability. I personally believe they all may have violated the intention of the Brown Act. I do agree that CC Weiss and CC Iseman should have taken appropriate action at the time the “Laguna Hotel / MO Honarkar Stop Work Orders” staff presentation and Council discussion and voting actions occurred by refusing to participate and pursuing proper avenues available to them following the meeting to address and expose the violation.

    In general. the seeming ignorance and questionable decision-making behavior by all of our city leaders and our legal counsel should be of serious concern to LB stakeholders and deemed unacceptable. We can start by demanding the two suggestions by CC Weiss : “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.”

    Fact is LB residents have been begging city leaders, legal advisors and management staff for more transparency for well over a decade citing an increased lack of trust in officials. The latest from our circus circus council shows it has fallen on deaf ears and since 2018 transparency problems have gotten considerably worse. They say things often have to get worse before they get better…I think we are there. Vote in 2022 for representatives who value and will prioritize transparency in conducting our city business. Clearly the incumbents aren’t eligible.

  11. Susan Hall – Looks like Chicken Little got your goat. 🙂

    No need for me to take action when I know others are in the process.

    As you can see, I’m not the only one concerned about the illegal activity being conducted at City Hall. And one needn’t run for office to point out corruption.

    Please alert me when you announce your candidacy.

  12. Claiming to speak for “Laguna residents” isn’t working anymore.

    Fact is (MJ Abraham and her Time-stoppers club) have been begging city leaders, legal advisors and management staff for more transparency for well over a decade citing an increased lack of trust in officials.
    ____________________________

    Further, your Brown Act Conspiracy Theory yarn invites voters to review the actual facts.The actual facts do not flatter Mr Weiss and Ms Iseman. In contrast, the facts show the majority of the CC to be reasonable and trustworthy.

    My guess is Mr Weiss and Ms Iseman prefer this whole Brown Act Conspiracy Theory be put back on the straw-man shelf. There’s a spot for it right next to the Whistle-blower Straw man that was rolled out last week.

  13. Les Miklosky, how can the city government give us a progress report? Progress on what? Hornarkar apparently has no plan that has been approved by the planning commission and certainly not by the city council. It seems like all Mo wants to do is maximize his profit potential on the ground floor and do whatever do whatever it takes to open that part of the hotel in the shortest time possible. And apparently with a wink and a nod and a few stop work orders so that the three council members supported by Liberate Laguna, the city manager and the city attorney can have plausible deniability Mo stays on his course and “keeps on truckin”. Hornarkar has less blame in this whole fiasco than those we have elected to represent us.

    I keep thinking about Hornarkar’s grandiose promise during a city council meeting of his “gift to the city” when discussing the Museum Hotel. After his and our city government’s performance of on the Hotel Laguna project I am reminded of that famous line by Cassandra in the “Iliad”; “Beware of of Greeks bearing gifts”. I equate George Weiss’s warning with what Cassandra tried to do. I hope George’s warning has more success.

  14. He was pointing out illegal activities by the council….what part of illegal doesn’t anyone understand here? the CC is reasonable and trushworthy? omg are you an idiot.

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