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Lobdell: New council era has shaky start

December 09, 2010|By William Lobdell

Well, the political honeymoon didn't last long in Costa Mesa.

Costa Mesa Councilwoman Wendy Leece has asked the city attorney for help in pursuing a Brown Act violation against three of her council colleagues.

The Brown Act is state law designed to prevent elected and government officials from conducting the public's business in secret.

In an e-mail sent late Wednesday to City Atty. Kimberly Hall Barlow, Leece said decisions at Tuesday's council meeting to elect Gary Monahan as mayor and Jim Righeimer as mayor pro tem appeared to be "pre-arranged." Councilman Eric Bever voted along with Righeimer and Monahan on the items.

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"There were no surprises when Mr. Monahan was nominated," Leece wrote. "No hesitations. Same with when Mr. Righeimer was nominated. Everything [went] … as planned.

"I believe they have had the plan some time ago. This was evident to many people. Many people have commented about this to me.

"I suspect that this is going to be a pattern in the future with these council members and I want to put them on notice that this is wrong and illegal.

"This is not good for the city to allow [a] violation of the Brown Act — or even the PERCEPTION of a pre-arranged vote — and backroom discussions on agenda items."

The potential Brown Act violation is what's termed a "serial meeting," which happens when council member A privately talks with council member B, who talks with council member C about an agenda item — in this case, selecting a mayor or mayor pro tem.

New Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer told me he followed the Brown Act, only indicating to Monahan that he would be willing to serve as mayor pro tem. He also said that both Monahan and Bever indicated that they would be willing to serve as mayor. At no time, Righeimer said, was the vote for the two posts preordained.

Leece was not contacted and didn't contact Righeimer.

Serial meetings — especially for minor issues like ceremonial mayoral posts — can be commonplace in local politics, but they are still illegal acts.

"Rounding up the votes behind the scenes is an actionable Brown Act violation," said Terry Francke, a Brown Act expert and general counsel for California Aware, a nonprofit that advocates open government.

Because the alleged violation involved the selection of two ceremonial posts, it won't get the attention of the Orange County district attorney. But if Leece pursued it in civil court, a judge could void the vote.

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