Council member challenges Brown Act interpretation

A new San Jacinto City Council member is contesting a council policy forbidding members to attend meetings of city committees to which they have not been appointed. The Brown Act states that a quorum of the council cannot meet without public notice. -DB

The Valley Chronicle
Feb. 13, 2009
By Charles Hand

Steve Di Memmo is going outside the city in a quest for legal agreement with his position that he can attend meetings of the San Jacinto City Council committees without risking violation of the Brown Act.

Di Memmo, the newest member of the City Council, opposes a newly adopted policy that provides censure for any council member who attends meetings of committees to which he is not appointed.

Di Memmo cast the only vote against the policy, which was adopted at the Feb. 5 council meeting, essentially in response to his refusal to follow the guidance of City Attorney Jeff Ballinger and other council members, who fear a Brown Act violation if he attends meetings of committees on which he does not serve.

Di Memmo has now written to Assemblyman Paul Cook asking him to bring the situation to the attention of Attorney General Jerry Brown, hoping to get an opinion that differs from Ballinger’s.

Until he does, said Di Memmo, he will not attend meetings of committees on which he does not sit.

“I’m not there to be disruptive,” Di Memmo said.

He insisted, though, that the policy conflicts with the Brown Act, the state open meeting law.

There was no argument from Ballinger or other members of the council on that point.

However, Ballinger indicated that sometimes elected representatives have to give up one right under the law to satisfy other rights under the law.

In this case, said Ballinger, the interests of complying with open meeting laws trumps Di Memmo’s desire to attend the meetings of committees of which he is not a part.

Under the Brown Act, a quorum of the City Council cannot meet unless the meeting has been posted as a City Council meeting.

Committees are composed of two members of the City Council, which falls short of the three-member quorum. Although committee meetings are public, they are not City Council meetings.

No decision can be made at committee meetings.

Di Memmo said he wants to attend meetings of the Public Safety Committee so he can know everything that is discussed.

One member of that committee, Jim Ayres, said nothing discussed at the committee meetings is hidden from other members of the City Council or the public.

In fact, said Mayor Dale Stubblefield, he is willing to have the meetings tape recorded so other members of the City Council and the public can listen to every word spoken if they care to.

That, said Ballinger, would avoid the risk of breaking the law.

The Brown Act does not prohibit Di Memmo’s attendance at any committee meeting, including meetings of committees to which he does not belong.

However, it does prevent him from participating in the meetings unless the city declares them full City Council meetings.

Ballinger said it is possible that Di Memmo’s presence could be interpreted as participation even from such minor gestures as smiling, groaning, rolling his eyes, or other nonverbal communication.

Di Memmo’s letter to Cook said, “As a new City Council member, I feel that I would be more prepared to make qualified decisions that benefit my community if I personally observe the committee meetings, rather than blindly vote on prepared presentations presented to the council.”

Committees were set up to divide the labor involved in developing details and background information on issues that could come before the City Council.

Without the committees, City Council meetings could go on for hours, said Ayres.

The committee system is used by most city councils in California.

Di Memmo also expressed dissatisfaction with the way the council handled the appointment of a new Planning Commission member last week.

A committee composed of Ayres and Stubblefield interviewed the nine applicants and recommended one to the full council, which has the power to make the appointment.

Di Memmo said he doesn’t believe the recommendation presented by Ayres and Stubblefield is enough. He said he also would like a list of the questions they asked during the interview and would be more comfortable if he could have listened to their responses.

Ballinger expressed disappointment at Di Memmo’s decision to seek another opinion.

“I think it will stand scrutiny,” Ballinger said.