A Sun Newspapers poll recently asked whether readers “feel there is transparency in Seal Beach’s local government?” According to last week’s paper, 53 percent said “No,” with only 13 percent saying “Yes.” While certainly not “scientific,” these results do suggest that many residents feel that transparency needs to be improved.
As it happens, there is currently an opportunity for the City Council to take a bold step in this direction. Specifically, the Council could ask the City Attorney to fully explain why a decision to spend $120,000 on a Sacramento lobbying firm last June needed to be made in secret behind closed doors.
Certainly, the cause was worthwhile and not controversial. If the proposed bill (Assembly Bill 1217) had passed, we could have lost our seat on the Orange County Fire Authority Board.
Moreover, the City’s opposition to the bill was no secret. The Council made this very clear when they publically adopted this position during an open meeting last April.
As it now stands, the only explanation given to the public is that the secrecy was legally justified due to “threatened litigation” against the City. State law generally requires the City Council to conduct its business in the open. There are very few exceptions to the law. One of them is when someone or some agency has threatened to sue to the City.
But how could hiring a lobbyist be related to a threatened lawsuit against the City? The OCFA also strongly opposed AB 1217, and directed their lobbyist to fight it. However, their decision was made in the open at a public meeting. Why was ours made behind closed doors?
I posed this question to several experts who work for non-profit organizations dedicated to promoting open government.
An attorney for the First Amendment Coalition told me that he was not aware of “any pending legislation” exception to the open government laws.
Two attorneys from Californians Aware, including one who has written a book on the subject, strongly agreed. So much so, that Californians Aware recently sent a letter to the City stating that approving a contract with a lobbying firm “is a completely improper topic for closed session under any circumstances.”
The Seal Beach City Attorney responded to this letter last week by stating that “not all of the facts have been supplied to you.” However, his letter did not go on to actually mention any of these missing facts. Unfortunately, he can legally withhold this information from the public. Any discussion in closed session is considered to be confidential. Even Council members are legally bound to silence.
However, the law does allow the City Council to vote as a group to break the confidentiality. They can direct the City Attorney to reveal all of the supposed missing facts.
As it stands, the facts that are known not only raise questions regarding the City Council’s commitment to open government, but also the stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
For example, why did the city pay $100,000 more on lobbying against AB 1217 than the OCFA?
The OCFA lobbyist only charged $20,000 for the same service.
Why did the City decide to go at it alone? Eighteen other cities were also at risk of losing their Board seats. This included Los Alamitos and Cypress. Why didn’t the City ask them to chip in?
Finally, when Councilwoman Deaton announced at a council meeting in early July that AB 1217 had been “pulled” (meaning it was effectively dead for the rest of 2015), why didn’t the City cancel the contract? The contract has a provision that allows cancellation for any reason with a two week notice. Therefore, the City could have canceled the contract in July, and not paid the lobbyist $60,000 to do nothing in August and September. Council members like to profess their commitment to open government. But actions speak louder than words. So, please City Council, take action now. Tell the public what was said in that closed session back in June. Reveal the “missing facts.”
It is the right thing to do, and would help restore confidence in our local government.
Robert Goldberg is a Seal Beach resident, a physician, and his hobby is being a watchdog for the Seal Beach City Council.