Closed for legislation: City sued for violating the Brown Act

It’s been a difficult year for open government in San Diego. City-council president Todd Gloria and city attorney Jan Goldsmith are currently embroiled in lawsuits for refusing to turn over correspondence sent from their private email accounts, a ballot measure championed by former councilmember Donna Frye and current councilmember David Alvarez was defeated, and now the city is being sued for denying citizens the right to make non-agenda public comments during Monday council hearings.

In a statement, Craig Sherman, attorney for the non-profit Center for Local Government Accountability, said, “While there is a history of the city wanting to limit such non-agenda public comment —moving it until an unpredictably and annoying late time on the meeting agenda; mostly holding it during business hours so working citizens cannot easily attend or comment; setting extremely short time limits for public speakers; and relegating non-agenda public comment to only be held on the regular Tuesday agenda meetings, the current practice of the City in limiting such access and public comment at the regular Monday meetings defies the principles and purposes of the Brown Act.

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“The Brown Act specifically requires an opportunity for non-agenda public comment for each meeting and agenda of a local agency such as the city council. CLGA seeks a Superior Court judgment and declaration of law that CLGA is correct in its interpretation and application of the Brown Act applied to the City and its Monday and Tuesday agendas, and a permanent injunction preventing the City from excluding non-agenda public comment from Monday agendas in the future.”

City-council members eliminated the opportunity for public comment from Monday meetings on September 24, 2001, in a 6-to-3 vote. Councilmembers Donna Frye, Toni Atkins, and Brian Maienschein voted against it; Scott Peters, Byron Wear, Jim Madaffer, Ralph Inzunza, George Stevens, and former mayor Dick Murphy voted in favor. The vote was part of larger effort to condense the Monday and Tuesday hearings by merging the two meetings into one and pushing the public comment portion to the beginning of the Tuesday meeting.

The ordinance contradicts the city’s municipal code, which states: “Every agenda for a regular council meeting shall provide a period on the agenda for members of the public to address the council on items of interest to the public that are not on the agenda but are within the jurisdiction of the council. Non-agenda public comment shall be subject to the exercise of the president’s discretion for a given agenda.”

Sherman’s clients are seeking to permanently require public comment on each agenda, a declaration confirming that the city has not followed the Brown Act, and for attorney’s fees.