Two First Amendment rights groups say they are moving forward with litigation against the City of Bakersfield for allegedly violating open-meetings laws.
Leaders of the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware said they are planning to file a joint lawsuit soon with the Kern County Superior Court after receiving what they believe to be an inadequate response from the city after the groups requested that the city agree to cease and desist from violating the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The organizations sent letters to the city in October claiming that staff violated open-meetings laws by holding several closed-session meetings with the City Council this year to discuss revenue concerns and a possible a tax increase.
The meetings were supposedly held under the guise of being conferences with legal counsel regarding potential or existing litigation, as agendas for the alleged meeting dates do not mention any financial discussions, the complaints allege.
Presentation documents that had been allegedly used in closed session were leaked to the organizations in October by a source with knowledge of the discussions.
“After careful consideration of your demand and review of the pertinent material, the City Council is confident that it did not violate the Brown Act and we remain committed to convening and agendizing our closed sessions within the parameters of the law,” Mayor Karen Goh said in statements to both organizations.
Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, said he wasn’t surprised by the city’s response.
“It’s pretty much as anticipated,” he said. “They’re just not prepared to admit that they misunderstood the Brown Act. The Cease and Desist challenge gave the city an opportunity to basically say ‘Oops, we made a mistake and we won’t do it again.’ Since they failed to commit to not repeat the practice, litigation is the only option left.”
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said he was also dissatisfied with the city’s response.
“The city didn’t offer any explanation of why they think they’re in compliance with the Brown Act. They just said they thought they were in compliance,” he said.
Besides the Cease and Desist request, both organizations also requested all communications and documents relating to the alleged meetings, including any from before or after they took place, as allowed under the California Public Records Act.
In response, the city sent about 40 pages of documents to the organizations, all of which were public records that were already available through City Council packets and other means. They were also mostly from the month of October. The alleged meetings had taken place on July 9, Sept. 6 and Sept. 20.
Snyder said he believes there are documents and communications directly relating to the alleged discussions that the city didn’t provide.
“I think there are more records that they should be disclosing,” he said. “We asked for records going back to July. They didn’t give us all the records in the time period we asked for. They’re not producing everything they should be.”
Francke said the lack of communications from city staff and council members included in the response was also concerning.
“[The documents] clearly are not sufficient to our requests because there had to have been a number of messages going back and forth in which they discussed various aspects of the controversy,” he said.
Snyder said that in a follow-up letter he sent to the city this month, he asked why staff hadn’t sent them copies of the alleged presentation documents that the group had been sent, which he had included a copy of with the initial letter he sent to the city.
“The ‘enclosures’ you mention were not included in our response because you already had the records in your possession and we did not see the need in providing them again,” Associate Attorney Viridiana Gallardo-King said in a response letter provided to The Californian.
“They didn’t dispute that those records were real records. They simply said that they knew we already had them,” Snyder said about the response.
Snyder said the lawsuit will likely seek for the court to require the city to produce additional documents. However, he said the exact details of the lawsuit are still being worked out.
“The city failed to produce records we believe the public is entitled to receive, so we’re going to proceed accordingly,” he said. “The lawsuit is still in the process of being put together.”
Ultimately, the organizations hope that the court will get to the bottom of whether or not the City of Bakersfield violated open-meetings laws.
“We’re hoping for a decree by the court confirming that the closed sessions were a violation of the Brown Act and an order for them not to repeat it,” Francke said. “The city had a choice between voluntarily committing [to not repeat the practice] or being ordered not to repeat it. They left the only answer to be a court response.”
The city declined to comment for this story.