Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | August 2, 2004

City Hall scandal and broken trust

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” – The Ralph M. Brown Act

Thanks to the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law, for more than 50 years local governments have had to abide by common-sense rules meant to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in public. Some of the Brown Act’s provisions require that local governments:

• Post meeting times and agendas in advance;
• Hold open, public meetings, except in a few strictly defined cases;
• Allow the public to speak at meetings on any topic the agency will be covering;
• Conduct votes in public.

If you’ve been following the Morgan Hill City Hall scandal, you know that “more than $50,000 has already been authorized behind closed doors for the City Hall scandal probe,” according to reporter Carol Holzgrafe’s article, “raising questions about possible violations of the Brown Act.”

I’ll say; it certainly raised questions in my mind.

The short version of the scandal is that someone was following the City Manager on a business trip. City Council privately authorized an investigation costing $50,000. Now that the lid’s off the scandal and the investigation, city officials say the cost of the investigation is likely to top $100,000.

Those who defend City Council’s actions point to two Brown Act open meeting exceptions that might seem to apply to this case. Closed meetings can be held to discuss personnel matters and pending litigation.

The First Amendment Project, an Oakland-based nonprofit public interest law firm, maintains a Web site detailing Brown Act basics. It explains that closed meetings can be held for personnel matters “only to discuss the appointment, employment, performance evaluation, discipline, complaints about or dismissal of a specific employee or potential employee.”

Finding out who’s tailing the City Manger doesn’t seem to fit.

Because there was a threat of a lawsuit in this case (although none filed to my knowledge) the pending litigation exception looks like a possibility. But according to the First Amendment Project, closed meetings to discuss pending litigation are allowed “only if open discussion would prejudice the position of the agency in the litigation.”

Why would openly discussing investigating a potential stalker threaten the city’s position? It seems that the city’s willingness to undertake such an expensive investigation makes it a terrific employer. Further, I’m not convinced that threatened litigation qualifies as pending litigation.

I believe that most Morgan Hill taxpayers are going to view this situation from a practical, common-sense perspective, not from a legal technicalities point of view. I’m bothered that my leaders decided it was best for me not to know that they were spending $50,000 on a questionable investigation. I’m bothered that they didn’t seek residents’ input on this expensive decision.

The budget message accompanying Morgan Hill’s 2004-2005 fiscal plan states that the city trimmed $900,000 in expenditures and used $1.7 million in reserve funds to balance the budget this year. When you realize Morgan Hill could only stay out of the red this fiscal year by cutting services and dipping into reserve funds, that $100,000 becomes even more precious.

Delve a little deeper in the budget, and you’ll learn that the city’s goal is to balance revenue and expenditures from the General Fund by June 30, 2008. Morgan Hill officials don’t expect revenues to cover operating costs for nearly three years.

Between budget woes and the Brown Act, how does City Council have $100,000 to spend on this questionable investigation or the idea that approving half of that expenditure without the input or knowledge of citizens is acceptable?

When news of this scandal first broke, Councilman Larry Carr spoke of the loss of trust between City Council members as a result: “One of the things that has been lost in this process has been a lot of trust,” he said. “It is certainly a lot easier to break a trust than to establish one.”

It’s too bad City Council members didn’t consider the importance of trust between citizens and their leaders before they made important, costly and questionable decisions behind closed doors.

We’ll learn how much that loss of trust will cost our elected officials this November.

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