BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A Kern County Superior Court Judge ruled Wednesday that the Bakersfield City Council violated the Ralph M. Brown Act when they held closed session meetings to discuss a 1 cent sales tax increase.
According to the ruling, Judge Stephen Schuett wrote:
These issues are clearly outside the limited scope of the closed session related to potential litigation...and the presentation and discussion of those issues constitutes violation of the Brown Act.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by two nonprofit advocacy organizations, First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware. The lawsuit pointed out that the closed sessions were held on July 19, September 6, and September 20, 2017, during which the council discussed "a wide range of matters of crucial importance to Bakersfield residents and taxpayers, including the city budget, potential staffing cuts and potential tax increases—all topics the Brown Act requires to be discussed in open session."
In documents, the city said the closed sessions were allowed based on an exception to the Ralph M. Brown Act. That exception allows for closed sessions in situations where existing or anticipated litigation was to be discussed.
In their statement in opposition to the lawsuit, the city stated: "the City was seeking to conduct discussions on matters pertaining to what City managers and the Council believed, based upon the existing facts and circumstance, was a significant exposure to litigation from plaintiffs who were not yet aware of their claims."
However, the lawsuit argued that "none of the discussions related to litigation."
Judge Schuett cited three sets of slides from the closed session meetings in his ruling. He wrote that the information presented in those slides was "part of the acquisition and exchange of information that ultimately led to the City Council’s public decision to proceed with [the] sales tax measure."
Judge Schuett also wrote:
"it is not the intention of the closed session exceptions to the Brown Act to permit any wide-ranging discussion of issues that might come up during the closed session...Rather, as stated above, the exceptions to the Brown Act are to be construed narrowly to allow maximum public access to the decision making process of the legislative body. This decision making process clearly includes the presentation of information and the acquisition and exchange of facts preliminary to the ultimate decision to the legislative body even though no action is taken."
The judge also ruled that the city must turn over documents requested by First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware that were related to the complaint, an pay attorneys fees for the dispute, the judge ruled.
You can view the slides presented at these closed session meetings here: