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DA Warns Council Violated Brown Act

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 6 -- The District Attorneys office sent a pointed warning to the City Council this week after finding that two members of the public were denied a chance to speak after council members violated the Brown Act by passing around a secret note urging them to vote no.

The note -- which was later retrieved from a trash can -- was written by Mayor Michael Feinstein and circulated at a special council meeting on April 16. The note read: "I have received two late requests to speak. Let's vote no."

"The City Council's actions on April 16, 2002 are clearly in violation of the Brown Act," said a letter written to the council by District Attorney Steve Cooley and dated December 2. "It is the Legislature's intent that actions taken by public agencies are taken openly and that the deliberations be conducted openly."

But Cooley said that after investigating the complaint filed by Chuck Allord, who has twice run for the council, his office would take no further action.

"Although the City Council's actions are contrary to both the letter and spirit of the Brown Act," Cooley wrote, "we decline at this time to take formal action. It is our belief that a warning will suffice to prevent any future Brown Act violations, which could mean the imposition of criminal or civil penalties.

"This office intends to fully enforce the public's right to complete access to meetings by local legislative bodies," Cooley concluded. "Any future violations will be dealt with accordingly."

DA Senior Investigator Karen Jones conducted an investigation after Allord filed a complaint in April. Jones interviewed members of the public who were present at the meeting, as well as Mayor Feinstein.

After being shown the note, Feinstein admitted that he had circulated it in an effort to prevent two members of the public from speaking.

Councilman Robert Holbrook said he did not see the note. "I don't recall ever seeing one like that," Holbrook said. "It must be a very rare occurrence."

Holbrook, who will begin his fourth term on the council next week, added that the council members sometimes pass around notes, but they do not deal with how to vote on issues. "They're about whether we should take a break, things like that," Holbrook said.

City Clerk Maria Stewart said there is no record of the vote because minutes are only kept for action items. The vote came at a study session that focused on boards and commissions and included a discussion of the Brown Act, closed sessions and conflicts of interest.

According to the Brown Act an action is "a collective commitment or promise by a majority of the members of a legislative body to make a positive or negative decision."
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