The First Amendment Coalition has prevailed in a lawsuit against the city of Bakersfield, with a judge ruling that the city council violated open-government laws when it held three closed-door sessions to discuss city finances and then refused to release public records related to those meetings.
The ruling, a complete victory for FAC and Californians Aware, which sued to enforce California’s open-meetings and open-records laws, requires the city to turn over records, record any future closed-door sessions for a year as a preventative measure and pay attorney fees associated with the lawsuit.
FAC and CalAware filed suit in 2017 under the Ralph M. Brown Act and the California Public Records Act after learning the council held three closed-door sessions from July through September of that year to discuss city finances and a proposed sales tax increase, eventually placed on the ballot as Measure N and passed by voters.
The lawsuit brought to light damning emails from staff to council members showing that city leaders discussed in secret fundamental issues of city governance, including revenue, staffing and taxation. The city defended the closed-door sessions by saying discussions involved anticipated litigation, and therefore were exempt from the Brown Act’s public meeting requirements.
Kern County Superior Court Judge Stephen Schuett rejected that argument. “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 section 54956.9 to swallow the rule,” the judge said in his 16-page ruling issued on Wednesday, Jan. 8.
“The City Council shut the public out of crucial discussions on exactly the kinds of topics California law requires be discussed in full public view,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Bakersfield refused for two years to back down from its position that it was entitled to this extraordinary secrecy. They were wrong, and we are grateful Judge Schuett has set them straight.”
In ordering the city to record its closed-door sessions for a year, Judge Schuett said the city “has demonstrated a pattern of past conduct that indicates the existence of potential future violations.”
He added: “Moreover, the City has been adamant that it has not violated the Brown Act by considering these issues in closed session. In light of that, the Court may presume that the City will continue similar practices absent the court’s intervention.”
Attorney Kelly Aviles of Los Angeles is representing both FAC and CalAware in the case.
For more information, contact:
First Amendment Coalition
Law Offices of Kelly Aviles