Porterville retailers allege open meetings violation in agreement between city and Indian tribe

A group of Porterville retailers claim that the city council violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, when they made an agreement in closed session with the Tule River Indian Tribe. -db

The Porterville Recorder
October 21, 2010
By Denise Madrid

A Cooperative Agreement made nearly six months ago during closed session between the City of Porterville and the Tule River Indian Tribe is being called into question by the Coalition of Retailers — a self-proclaimed “group of civic minded business owners operating in and around the City of Porterville.”

In a letter addressed to the City Council and mailed out Oct. 13, the group indicates how the alleged violation occurred.

First, the approval of a Memorandum of Understanding between the City (members who were on the Council when the agreement was made) and Tribe made on March 16 during closed session does not meet the statutory definition of matters appropriate for closed session.

Second, the MOU between the City and the Tribe was not noticed on the March 16 agenda, and third, closed session item subjects must provide the public the opportunity for comment prior to the City taking an action.

The letter goes on to relate the Coalition’s demands, to be met in a matter of 30 days as provided in the Brown Act.

The demands are that the City:

– Issue a full report of the March 16 executive session;
– Provide any and all documents, transcripts, texts and notes related to the action taken on the MOU, to be made available to the public at the time of notice of the City Council meeting as outlined in the next item;
– Place and rehear the MOU as it was indicated to originally appear on the March 16 City Council agenda, not to exceed 60 days from the demand and provide full notice to the public and the Coalition;
– Require all City Council members in attendance on March 16 to explain their position on a number of matters.

Coalition member and local mini-mart owner, Taha Saleh, explained his position on the issue.

“My main interest in this circle of events is to bring this back up and open a public discussion, then pros and cons will be made. At this time people don’t understand the Memorandum of Understanding and what impact it has or if there’s no negative impact. We’re looking for open transparency and discussion, where people and business owners can speak the pros and cons of this deal,” Saleh said.

Saleh added that prior to The Recorder’s publication of a story back in the month of April, he was not aware that an agreement took place in closed session.

“I wasn’t aware of it. What some people see as sufficient public notice may not be enough to others. There are members who have other people that are professionals who pull information and say ‘Hey, this wasn’t done right.”

Among those professionals is Cheryl Schmit, founder and director of Stand Up for California — a watchdog group that focuses on gambling issues affecting the state.

Schmit has been watching the Tule River Indian Tribe since 2002, when Springville residents contacted her for assistance to oppose the Tribe’s land acquisition near Success Lake to establish a casino.

“The problem now is the Tribe is seeking to take this 40 acres into trust. The Tribe owns the land in fee and is able to expand on economic developments, but when you put a loan in trust, it creates a number of conflicts,” Schmit said over a phone interview Wednesday.
Once into trust, the land becomes immediately tax exempt, taking it out of civil regulatory control, she said, giving the City and County no say and creating an atmosphere of unfair competition.

Sam Cohen, legal counsel for the Tule River Indian Tribe said the Tribe was not aware of the recent developments with regards to the alleged violation.

“The City and their legal counsel will address the letter, the Tribe however is not covered by the Brown Act. The Tribe has a history of cooperating with the City, if the agreement is nullified we’ll work with them and try to come up with a new agreement,” Cohen said. “It’s premature to panic or start a new agreement.”

As for the City, City Manager John Lollis resonated Cohen’s comment, saying that the City Attorney would define the response.

“The City is confident there was not a Brown Act violation,” Lollis said.

The Recorder was unable to contact City Counsel Julia Lew for comment as of press time.

The City Council has until November 12 to cure and correct the alleged violation.

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