Brown Act Violations by City Alleged (Again)
BY BILL KOENEKER
A non-Malibuite is challenging how the Malibu City Council and its city attorney handled the decision to file a lawsuit against the executive director of the California Coastal Commission—accusing municipal officials of violating the Brown Act.
In a letter to the city, Paul Merritt charged municipal officials with violating the so-called sunshine law by holding serial meetings to agree to the lawsuit.
Merritt, who indicated that he lives in Laguna and Hollywood, handles trusts and brokerage accounts for clients and is an “advocate of open space, clean water and clean government,” said, just on the face of it, he believes the council violated the Brown Act.
Merritt said he became concerned about the matter after reading the local newspapers. He noted that he neither owns property in Malibu, nor has any trust clients here at this time.
“Lawyers don’t go out and file lawsuits without the consent of their clients,” he added.
Merritt, who said he has no affliation with the Coastal Commission, though he has had several runs-ins with the state agency, also sent the letter to the city attorney asking her to drop the lawsuit against Peter Douglas, the executive director of the CCC.
The council sued Douglas over a determination he made that the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy’s park plan was eligible for an override of the city’s Local Coastal Program.
“It seems clear that the action by Malibu’s city attorney was not, nor could have been independent of the council…therefore must have occurred by a serial communications between elected officials, outside of the purview of the public,” Merritt wrote.
City Attorney Christi Hogin, who has asked the city council to take action in response to the allegations at next week’s meeting, said Merritt’s allegation is based exclusively on his assumption that serial communications must have preceded the city’s decision to file the lawsuit.
“As you know, no such communications preceded the filing of the lawsuit,” wrote Hogin in a memo to council members.
She said, as city attorney, she is authorized to take action to protect the interests of the city and seek subsequent authorization or ratification.
She acknowledged because of the council’s meeting schedule and other considerations, without council discussion, she filed a complaint a few days before the city council met. Hogin said she did not attempt to serve papers until after the city council authorized the lawsuit.
“The council’s unanimous decision to pursue the litigation was reported in open session of the meeting. This procedure was in accordance with the procedures of the Brown Act,” she added.
Hogin, in a memo to the council, asked them to take no action “to cure or correct in response” to the allegation “because it is based on the incorrect premise that the council members engaged in a serial meeting.” The city attorney wants the council to respond to Merritt in a letter and to acknowledge that the council ratified the city attorney’s decision to file the lawsuit and authorized the lawsuit.
The city attorney also included a letter for the council to approve to respond to Merritt’s allegations. Meritt said he had not heard from the city attorney, or other municipal officials, and was waiting for a reply. He also indicated he would not be attending the city council’s meeting next week.