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california’s open meeting laws

Court rules L.A. council members wrongly blocked public testimony at 'special' meetings


The Los Angeles City Council must allow people to testify on issues considered during their “special” meetings, which are called with just one day of notice, a three-judge panel has ruled.


In a 15-page decision, the 2nd District Court of Appeal said the council improperly prevented Studio City resident Eric Preven from weighing in on a development issue taken up during a special meeting in 2015.


The decision represents a victory for Preven, who has long argued that Los Angeles does not comply with the provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law. Preven, who serves on the Studio City Neighborhood Council, argued in his lawsuit that council members had repeatedly used a faulty legal rationale to shut down public comment.


“It’s not a single incident,” he said. “The city has been engaged a pattern of abuse on the Brown Act.”


The ruling took aim at the city’s practice of prohibiting people from speaking on agenda items that were considered in special meetings when the same items had been discussed at a previous

committee meeting. Special meetings can be called just 24 hours in advance, whereas regular council meetings require at least 72 hours’ notice.


Preven said the council has held more than 100 special meetings since the 2015 incident that triggered the lawsuit. It’s not clear how many times public testimony was wrongfully barred during those meetings, he said.


The ruling, which was issued Friday, sends Preven’s case back to the trial court for additional proceedings. A spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer said his office is reviewing the decision and declined to comment further.


Preven’s lawsuit focused on a pair of meetings held roughly three years ago about a shopping center project planned at Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, not far from his home.


On December 15th, 2015, the council’s five-member Planning and Land Use Management Committee took up the shopping center proposal and Preven weighed in on it. The following day, the 15-member council conducted its own vote on the Sportsmen’s Lodge project during a special meeting.


Preven asked to make public comments on the proposal again at the council’s Dec. 16, 2015, special meeting. He was denied the opportunity on the grounds that the matter had already been heard, with public testimony received, at a council committee the previous day, according to the court’s ruling.


Nine months later, Preven filed a demand letter with the city, saying the council had violated the Brown Act, which spells out the rules for public input at government meetings. He later sued.


Feuer and his lawyers had argued that the council has no obligation to grant members of the public the opportunity to testify a second time on an item already heard in committee. A Superior Court judge agreed, saying Preven did not have the right to make additional public comment.


The appeals court reversed that decision, saying it was made in error. State law does not permit government agencies to prohibit public comment on agenda items considered during special meetings, the court said.


The three-judge panel said state law treats special meetings as being distinctly different from regular meetings, which require more advance warning.


Under state law, city officials can refuse to take public comment on an issue considered during a regular council meeting, if public comment was taken on the same issue at a committee. That exception does not apply to special meetings, the court said in its ruling.


“Given the plain language of the statute … we find the Brown Act does not permit limiting comment at special city council meetings based on comments at prior, distinct committee meetings,” the ruling said.


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Northern California news

Years of financial mismanagement in Lincoln ‘threaten the city’s stability,’ state audit reports


The California State Auditor’s office slammed the city of Lincoln for years of financial mismanagement of public funds, lax accountability and inadequate oversight from officials that “threaten the city’s stability,” in an audit report released Thursday.


Lincoln overcharged developers and residents, made “questionable” loan transfers, and shuffled money from restricted funds to offset deficit-ridden accounts to falsely present the funds as solvent, according to the state auditor’s report. These actions “did not always follow state law,” Chief Deputy State Auditor John Billington wrote in a letter to legislators.


Lincoln City Council acknowledged “mistakes were made” that have eroded the public’s trust, in a letter signed by all members of the city council published Thursday on the city’s website.


“We apologize,” reads the letter. “We regret not requiring more detailed operational reporting, not directing an overhaul of business practices sooner, and not demanding prior management make needed changes.”


Aware of the state audit’s findings, city staff has been identifying gaps in current city policies since December as part of a business process improvement initiative to remedy the findings of the audit, interim City Manager Jennifer Hanson said.


“One of the challenges is the city grew too fast,” Hanson said. Lincoln, with a population of more than 46,000, almost quadrupled in size between 2000 and 2010, making it at the time one of the fastest growing small cities in the country.


“I don’t think the financial structure was built to process that much business in that time, and what happens in that process is that the i’s are not dotted and the t’s are not crossed,” she said.


The audit began in May 2018, Hanson said, after a group of residents concerned that the city was illegally charging ratepayers to cover the cost of the city’s municipal utility rates reached out to then-state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills, requesting an audit.


The audit found Lincoln overcharged resident ratepayers $1.6 million for municipal utilities from January 2014 through February 2018, violating a state constitution provision. Voters approved Proposition 218 in 1996, which forces local government to only charge ratepayers the cost to service the ratepayer’s property.


The city has already begun paying back overcharges starting from July 2017, Hanson said, adding that the statute of limitations for repaying utility rate overcharges is one year.


Lincoln also overcharged developers and builders for the cost of water infrastructure, with the city collecting nearly $41 million in excess for its water connections fund as of June 2017, according to the report.


The city would then loan money from the water connections fund, in addition to other funds, to separate accounts that “clearly did not have the capacity to repay those loans,” according to the report, breaking the city’s interfund loan policy. The city has five outstanding interfund loans it is obligated to pay back, totaling $9.6 million, according to Hanson.


The city would also temporarily transfer money from the water connections fund each year to several other funds with deficits, such as the Fire Department, Parks Department and the airport, from 2013 to 2017, misrepresenting its financial position in its annual financial statements, the audit reported.


Between fiscal 2013-14 and 2016-17, transfers from the water connection fund ranged from more than $7 million in 2016-17, to nearly $19 million the previous year.


The mismanagement stems from years of city officials failing to follow their own policies, the report states. Several past financial investigations by the city’s external financial auditor reported “recurring deficiencies, including the city’s inability to accurately prepare its financial statements at the end of each fiscal year,” but little changed, the report said.


Staff would sometimes make expenditures and city contracts were sometimes amended without obtaining appropriate approval, the report found. The City Council approved a $3.9 million loan in 2010 from the water connections fund to its redevelopment agency, despite staff stating that the redevelopment agency would not be able to pay back the loan.


City managers in Lincoln are allowed to enter into contracts of up to $25,000 without prior approval of the City Council, but city ordinances require they promptly report these contracts to a City Council meeting. “However, Lincoln could not demonstrate that its former city managers ever made such reports,” the report stated.


“It would be very difficult to pinpoint a particular person” as the root of the city’s financial disarray, Hanson said. The issues “transcend a number of councils and a number of city managers.”


The city’s first priority is addressing bad accounting practices to ensure future annual financial statements are accurate, and creating repayment plans for the loans the city owes to various accounts. Lincoln is also required to study fees and rates, which could lead to ratepayer bills increasing or decreasing, according to a city FAQ.


“I don’t view the audit as a bad thing. It’s like buying a house,” Hanson said. “I’ve had the house inspected, I know what’s wrong and it’s time to fix it.”


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