Sweetwater Authority board charged with violating open meeting law

A San Diego water board has been charged with circumventing the Brown Act. In attempting to suspend a fellow board member, Mitch Beauchamp, the other members each sent a letter to the mayor. Since the letters were not discussed in an open meeting, Beauchamp’s lawyer is claiming either the board members illegally convened a secret meeting or conducted serial meetings. -DB

San Diego Union-Tribune
Feb. 14, 2009
By Tanya Sierra

NATIONAL CITY — Sweetwater Authority board members violated the state’s open meeting law when they wrote letters to get fellow board member Mitch Beauchamp suspended, attorneys for Beauchamp claim.

In November, board members sent similarly worded letters to National City Mayor Ron Morrison, asking him to suspend Beauchamp because he was “deceitful” and “irresponsible.”
Former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who represents Beauchamp, said he believes the board members agreed in private or in serial meetings to send the letters.

“The tenor, content and appearance of these letters indicate that the decision to uniformly proceed in this manner was procured wholly or partly through a secret meeting, or through a series of serial meetings involving a majority of the members of the authority,” Aguirre wrote.

The state’s open meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, says that all public agency meetings are open to the public and that the public must be notified in advance through an agenda.

“You can’t collectively concur together to come to this decision to send these letters without having it noticed on the docket,” said attorney Chris Morris of Aguirre, Morris and Severson.

Aguirre said if the board does not rescind the letters, Beauchamp will file a lawsuit against the agency, which provides water and sets the rates for National City, Bonita and parts of Chula Vista. Beauchamp, National City’s treasurer and a former city councilman, was appointed to the board in 2002.

Five current and former water board members, in letters written Nov. 9, 10 and 11, said Beauchamp was harming the organization with gossip but did not cite specifics. Morrison gave the letters to the City Council, which appoints two members to the board. The council voted to suspend Beauchamp on Dec. 16.

In an interview in December, Beauchamp said board members were upset because they believe he was instrumental in getting two new board members elected and because he is friendly with a Sweetwater employee who filed a discrimination complaint against the agency. He also said he was openly critical of current General Manager Mark Rogers.

An attorney for the Sweetwater Authority, Michael Cowett, is representing the board members.

“We are reviewing the communications, pursuant to which the letters were prepared and distributed, to make sure that no Brown Act violation occurred,” Cowett wrote in a letter to board members on Monday.

National City hired an outside law firm to investigate board members’allegations about Beauchamp. The investigation is expected to be completed by the end of March.
Morrison said Beauchamp is focusing on the wrong issue.

“He’s wanting to center on the Brown Act violation and he’s not even responding to the charges themselves,” Morrison said. “The defense should not try to do away with the claim without answering them.”