By Anne Caenn
Village Laguna is deeply concerned about the City Council’s disregard for transparency and public involvement. A low point was reached during the council’s recent consideration of a downtown parking-garage project at the Laguna Presbyterian Church. Prior to the Council meeting, Village Laguna sent the Council two letters commenting on the project, one of focussing on concerns with the Council’s compliance with the Brown Act, California’s open-meeting law for local public agencies. Neither letter reached the City Council until shortly before the meeting began. When we asked what had happened, we were told that our letters had been held in the Microsoft email system’s “scrubber.”
After recent events concerning the Council’s Brown Act compliance, we thought that the Council would be more careful with closed sessions. Less than a year ago, the Orange County District Attorney criticized the Council for violating the Brown Act by receiving a closed session briefing from City staff on the Hotel Laguna and by voting in closed session to lift the hotel’s stop-work order. After this episode, and especially after the involvement of the District Attorney’s office, we were surprised to learn that the Council appeared once again to be conducting improper closed-session meetings, this time on the downtown parking garage project at the Presbyterian Church.
The Brown Act allows the Council to discuss real estate negotiations in closed session, such as those involving the Church parking-lot project, but the discussion must be very limited. The limitations for real-estate negotiation are common-sense limitations. They allow the Council to discuss price, payment terms, and related matters in closed session, so that, for example, the Council can develop a negotiating strategy around an initial offering price and a maximum price without disclosing a negotiating strategy or the price that the City is willing to pay. Little else, however, can be discussed. The Council cannot in closed session propose a project, develop it, and once the project is almost fully realized, spring it on an unsuspecting public, which is exactly what appears to have happened here. It is distressing that some members of the City Council believe that this course of action is “normal” and “the way councils operate.” It is not normal, and it is not the way councils operate, at least those respecting transparency and avoiding embarrassing enquiries from the district attorney’s office.
Closed-session violations are by their very nature difficult to identify. The violations occur in secret, behind closed doors, and away from public scrutiny. Here, the proof of the Council’s Brown Act violations for the church parking lot project comes from the City’s own documents and from statements by City officials. This proof was discussed in detail in one of the letters that Village Laguna sent to the Council. It is unfortunate that the email containing our letters was flagged as spam or malware and that members of the City Council did not have an adequate opportunity to review the letter before the Council meeting. It might have helped cast some light on a deal that appears to have been negotiated in the shadows.
Moving forward, we urge the Council to follow the normal planning process for major public works projects, at least what has been the normal process up to this point. The Council should include the Church parking in the City’s general and specific plans, in this case, the Downtown Specific Plan. The parking garage should be included in projected capital improvement plans and in the appropriate year’s budget. The Council should stop developing the project in closed sessions. By not following the normal planning process and developing the project in closed sessions, the Council has sidestepped public scrutiny and avoided important questions regarding the Church parking lot. This not the way councils operate, at least not ones that follow the law and that value transparency and public involvement.
Anne is president of Village Laguna, Inc.