Dec. 27, 2017 – The First Amendment Coalition (FAC) filed suit against the city of Bakersfield over the city council’s repeated practice of holding closed-door meetings to discuss topics that under California law must be heard in public. The lawsuit, jointly filed with Californians Aware (CalAware) in Kern County Superior Court, also demands that the city release public records relating to the unlawful council sessions—records the city is required to disclose under the California Public Records Act but has failed to produce.
The Bakersfield City Council illegally held closed-door sessions on at least three separate occasions from July through September 2017 to discuss a broad range of important policy issues, including tax increases and staffing layoffs, all without any public knowledge. The city appears to have attempted to justify the closed-door meetings with the “anticipated litigation” exception to the Brown Act, which allows legislative bodies to meet privately to receive legal advice about specific litigation.
However, both FAC and CalAware received copies of presentations that city staff delivered at the meetings—there was no mention of litigation, but rather the presentations showed council members discussed fundamental issues of city governance, including revenue, staffing and taxation. The “anticipated litigation” exemption does not apply to such broad financial and policy discussions, nor does any other exemption to the Brown Act’s open-meetings requirements.
“Bakersfield is trying to use a narrow exemption to the law, illegally, as a cover to secretly discuss crucial policy matters they apparently would rather not have exposed to public scrutiny,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “When we brought these violations to the city’s attention, they simply hunkered down, refusing to admit that they are in violation of state law, which means they will continue these practices until they are stopped in court.”
Upon learning about the closed-door meetings, FAC and CalAware each sent letters to Bakersfield city officials demanding they admit to the violations and immediately cease and desist from excluding the public from city council sessions. In addition, FAC requested documents relating to the meetings under the California Public Records Act, including any communications before and after they took place. Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh replied to FAC’s Brown Act demand letter by asserting the city had not violated the law. The city also failed to produce the documents FAC requested.
The FAC-Cal Aware lawsuit followed.
“The public can’t hold their government accountable unless they know what their government is doing,” Snyder said. “We’re going to make sure they do.”
Attorney Kelly Aviles of Los Angeles is representing both FAC and CalAware in the case.
A copy of the lawsuit can be seen here.