Wednesday, March 6, 2002
San Diego Council’s Ballpark Discussions Violated Brown Act—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The San Diego City Council violated California’s open meetings law by discussing a broad array of topics related to the city’s proposed downtown baseball stadium at closed sessions, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Affirming a declaratory judgment and injunction issued by San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell prior to her elevation to the Court of Appeal, Div. One held that the complexity of the downtown redevelopment plan of which the ballpark is part does not justify departure from the strict legal limits on the city’s ability to conduct public business in private.
“We believe the City Council’s view that no detailed disclosures should be required before closed sessions may be held to discuss a complex overall real estate based transaction is inconsistent with the express statutory requirements of” the Ralph M. Brown Act, Justice Richard Huffman wrote.
Huffman cited Government Code Sec. 54956.8, which permits a local government body to discuss real estate transactions in secret provided that the property and the persons with whom the city is dealing are publicly identified. He also pointed to Sec. 54954.2(a), which requires that “items to be discussed in closed session” be included in the agenda that must be posted for every meeting.
The decision was a victory for Melvin Shapiro, a civic activist who has been raising questions about the ballpark plan going back almost to its inception.
San Diego voters approved a measure in 1998, shortly after their Padres won the National League championship for the first time in 14 years, authorizing the city to work with the team and various other entities to build the ballpark as part of a large redevelopment project in the Centre City East area.
Construction of the stadium resumed last week after a litigation-related halt of nearly two years.
Lawsuits and investigations failed to stop the ballpark, although former City Councilwoman Valerie Stallings resigned in January of last year after pleading guilty to two federal misdemeanor charges related to taking gifts from Padres owner John Moores while casting votes on the ballpark. Moores was cleared of any wrongdoing.
McConnell found that the council violated the Brown Act on a number of occasions between December 1998 and September 1999 by, among other things, failing to identify who was representing the city in property negotiations, who they were meeting with, and what specific parcels of property they were meeting about and discussing matters in closed session that were outside the scope of the real-estate exception to the “sunshine” requirement.
The law allows a local legislative body to meet with its real estate negotiators regarding price and terms of payment for the sale, purchase, exchange, or lease of identified real property.
McConnell found that the city had illegally used the Sec. 54956.8 exception, however, to discuss such tangential matters as the hiring of a ballpark manager, an environmental impact report, financing, naming rights, and the effects of redevelopment on the homeless.
She further concluded that an injunction against future violations was necessary. Among other things, she ordered the council to post specific descriptions of ballpark-related matters considered in closed session, rather than the general description which it had repeated on 16 occasions, which said “In the matter of authorizing the City Manager to negotiate with designated representatives from the San Diego Padres and the San Diego Unified Port District regarding real property interests in the East Village area of downtown San Diego, and at Qualcomm Stadium in the City of San Diego.”
The city, which changed some of its practices with regard to Brown Act compliance in 1999, argued on appeal that the injunction was unnecessary, but Huffman disagreed.
“We believe that the trial court was justified in concluding that the City Council’s conduct in pursuing its contentions that it may interpret and adjust the requirements of the Brown Act as it sees fit, in dealing with a particular project, clearly demonstrates that… violations have occurred or will reasonably probably occur in the immediate future,” the jurist wrote.
The case is Shapiro v. San Diego City Council, D037323.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company