Monday, August 4, 2014
(Stanislaus) County Civil Grand Jury reports Patterson Brown Act violations
July 24, 2014
By Elias Funez
The Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury (SCCGJ) offered up their yearly report last month on issues and complaints received throughout the county regarding political practices conducted by local decision-making boards. In their yearly findings, a report was furnished regarding recent Brown Act violations by Patterson’s city council.
According to the report, the SCCGJ received a written complaint alleging that the City Council of Patterson repeatedly violated the Brown Act. Upon investigation it was found that the City Council was not in compliance with the Brown Act and was violating the timely dissemination of information to the public.
The Ralph M. Brown Act, originally enacted in 1953, was formed to guarantee the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies in response to mounting public concerns over informal undisclosed meetings held by local elected officials that were avoiding public scrutiny by holding secret “workshops” and “study sessions.”
The SCCGJ investigation included interviewing the complainant, as well as reviewing the Patterson City Council meeting minutes and agendas from May 2012 to September 2013.
During review of the minutes and agendas it was found that the city violated the Brown Act on multiple occasions by not disclosing the address to properties being negotiated for on the closed-session agendas. Assessor’s Parcel Numbers (APN) were provided by city staff in the agendas. The complainant stated, however, that most citizens may not have access to, or know how to access, property APN’s and therefore would not know which properties were being negotiated.
The Brown Act states that if a street address is available for properties under negotiation, then it must be listed in the agenda. If there is no physical address available, then it is allowed for an APN only to be listed.
The SCCGJ report also claimed that no reports were made to the public of the closed City Council meetings regarding the negotiated properties for purchase until the agreements to purchase had been made. The city violated the Brown Act on another count by failing to list the names of negotiators.
Further investigation by the SCCGJ revealed that the average delay from meeting to approval of the minutes was 63 days, with 151 days being the longest. City administration acknowledged the lack of attention to publishing City Council meeting minutes in a timely manner.
When asked of the report by the SCCGJ, City Manager Rod Butler said, “We always take seriously their suggestions. However, we do take time to list APN’s which indicates that we weren’t trying to deceive anyone. We’ll always take a look at what they have to say, but there’s no evidence that the city was intentionally trying to deceive the public.”
The SCCGJ listed recommendations for the City of Patterson, which included listing the street address alongside the APN’s of properties considered for sale or purchase, as well as disclosing the negotiators or legal entities of those involved.
The SCCGJ panel was made up of 17 residents from cities throughout Stanislaus County that served one fiscal year from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014. Grand jurors are sworn in and are required to uphold an oath to provide unbiased oversight as they investigate the various complaints from citizens about the operations of the county and city governments, school districts and special districts, as required by law. The SCCGJ investigates policies and procedures and makes recommendations to improve local government operations.
The City of Patterson has been scrutinized by the SCCGJ in the past for Brown Act violations, but most notably for a scathing report issued in 2011 that called for former councilmember Annette Smith’s ouster and for monies earned by former mayor Becky Campo to be repaid, including also accusations towards former City Attorney George Logan and current councilmember Dominic Farinha.
The City Council has until September to issue a formal response to the 2013-2014 SCCGJ report. Elias Funez can be reached at 209-892-6187 ext: 31 or firstname.lastname@example.org.