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Council to Redo Vote for Top Posts

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By Jorge Casuso

January 6, 2020 -- The City Council on Tuesday will redo its selection of a Mayor and Mayor pro tem after concerns were raised that the initial vote on December 8 may have violated the State's open meetings act.

Tuesday's vote, however, will not likely alter the outcome -- Sue Himmelrich was elected mayor and Kristin McCowan mayor pro tem -- since the City Attorney has advised that all seven Councilmembers can participate.

The reselection comes after McCowan disclosed before last month's vote that she had told three other councilmembers she would be willing to serve as Mayor Pro Tem and support Himmelrich for mayor.

The disclosure prompted community activist Olga Zurawska to file a complaint claiming that "the individual conversations, known as 'hub-and-spoke' serial meetings, violated the Brown Act."

The 1953 law prohibits members of a legislative body from using "a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business."

McCowan’s public disclosure, Zurawska wrote, "does not cure the violation of the Brown Act because there is no reason to believe that the effect of the serial meetings on the majority of the Council was erased by her public statement."

Zurawska demanded that McCowan "refrain from participating in the new
selection of Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem."

In his response Wednesday, Interim City Attorney George Cardona acknowledges McCowan might have engaged in a serial meeting but that her disclosure resulted in "substantial compliance" with the Brown Act.

The disclosure "resulted in both the public and all councilmembers being aware of the information she had discussed prior to any proceedings to select the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem," he wrote.

Cardona argued that precluding McCowan from participating in Tuesday's vote would chill, rather than encourage such disclosures.

"Such voluntary disclosure is something that should be encouraged to provide public transparency and further the goals of the Brown Act," Cardona wrote.

"There may be instances where punishment remains appropriate despite such a voluntary disclosure, but this does not appear to be such a case.

"To the contrary, imposing a punishment here would most likely serve only to chill such voluntary disclosures," Cardona concluded.

Zurawska believes the opposite will happen.

If McCowan participates, "it will set a dangerous precedent that it is okay to violate the Brown Act, then simply disclose the violation, and be rewarded with a Council leadership position to boot," Zurawska said.

"That would effectively render the premise of the Brown Act moot," she added.

Zurawska said she hopes McCowan will "do the right thing" and recuse herself.

"The people expect the new City Council to first and foremost serve the residents, and conduct itself lawfully, ethically and with transparency," Zurawska wrote in her complaint.

"Not addressing a Brown Act violation during the very first meeting of the new Council is not the new start Santa Monicans had been hoping for.

"This issue must be cured by the Council to demonstrate the Council’s respect for the law and the value the Council places on public trust," Zurawska said.

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