A Kern County court has ruled that the city of Bakersfield violated the state’s open meetings laws when it held closed discussions on city finances that eventually led to the city’s 1 percent sales tax increase.
The court said that the city’s past behavior demonstrated a pattern of conduct that indicated the potential for future violations, and ordered the city to record all closed sessions for a period of one year.
Judge Stephen Schuett issued the ruling on Wednesday in response to a lawsuit by two nonprofit advocacy organizations, First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware.
“It’s such a flagrant violation of the Brown Act, probably one of the most flagrant violations of the general requirements of the Brown Act that I’ve ever seen,” Kelly Aviles, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview. “To think that you can decide the financial fate of your entire city without any public input, it’s just egregious.”
The City Attorney’s Office said no one was available Thursday to comment on the ruling.
The violations occurred in July and September 2017, when the Bakersfield City Council held three closed session meetings to discuss the city’s financial outlook and potential solutions to the looming budget shortfall.
Legislative bodies in California are required to follow the Ralph M. Brown Act, which allows meetings to be closed to the public only in limited circumstances. The city claimed that the discussions in closed session solely involved legal advice given in anticipation of pending litigation, an exception under the law. However, the judge ruled the financial information disclosed at the meetings was clearly outside the scope of the Brown Act.
“To permit the City Council to use this exception as a subterfuge to allow the discussion of the City’s critical budget issues, the potential solutions to those issues, impacts on City revenues, and potential staff layoffs and curtailing of services would allow the exception created by (the Brown Act) to swallow the rule,” Schuett wrote in the ruling.
The judge’s decision relied largely on three sets of slides from the closed session meetings.
In the first set, the slides discuss the city’s budget projections for the next five years, according to the ruling. The last slide in the set asks how the city will solve the gap between revenue and expenses, answering by saying the city could either cut staffing levels or increasing general revenue.
In the second set of slides, various methods for the city to increase revenue are described, the ruling states.
The third set begins with a recap of the financial challenges facing the city before offering potential solutions for reducing costs or increasing revenue, including by raising taxes.
Ultimately, the city would propose raising the city’s sales tax from 7.25 percent to 8.25 percent and Bakersfield residents narrowly voted in favor of the issue in November 2018.
Aviles said the public would have been interested in the city's discussions had they been aware they were occurring.
“The public and the citizens who live (in Bakersfield) and vote, and who are eventually going to be paying these taxes, they have a right to see the full process, not just a snippet of what the city wants you to see,” she said. “And that’s why we’re happy with this decision, because it gives people in the city a broader look of how their city is doing business.”
She noted that the requirement for the city to record its closed sessions was significant because it would prevent the city from obstructing the disclosure of what occurred in closed sessions should any disputes arise in the future.
The judge also ruled that the city must turn over documents requested by First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware that were related to the complaint.
The city must also pay attorneys fees for the dispute, the judge ruled.