Even as some Palo Alto City Council members apologized to the public for secret meetings with billionaire John Arrillaga and promised more transparency, they repeatedly struggled to follow state transparency laws during their meeting.
The transparency troubles took place Monday night during a discussion on the city’s response to a scathing report from a Santa Clara County civil grand jury, a panel of residents commissioned by the court to investigate government operations.
The report had blasted the city for keeping from the public information about Arrillaga’s offer to buy a 7.7 acre parcel of land adjacent to Foothills Park that was a deed restricted as open space and a large-scale plan for 27 University Ave. that Arrillaga proposed on behalf of landowner Stanford.
One by one, the council members apologize or tried to explain what had happened. But despite promises to do better, the meeting offered several signs that the Council is still struggling when it comes to transparency.
For one thing, the discussion started more than two hours after the 9:05 PM scheduled start time. That caused council watchdog Hurb Borock to say at the microphone, “By the way, it’s two hours after your ‘transparency’ agenda said this was supposed to be.”
Sticking to the Brown Act
As council members talked about changes they wanted to make in the response to the civil grand jury, some also began discussing changes to city policy to prevent secret meetings from taking place.
Councilman Greg Schmidt was making suggestions for rules to limit secret and closed session meetings when Councilman Larry Klein interrupted to say that the council couldn’t start creating policy because it wasn’t on the agenda. Discussing something that’s not on the agenda would be a violation of the Brown Act, Klein said.
Next, Mayor Nancy Shepherd created a subcommittee comprised of Councilman Schmid and Pat Burt and tasked them with using the councils suggestions to edit the city’s response letter to the report.
‘Serial meeting’ rule
That’s when Shepard asked if the city council members could simply send their thoughts and comments to Burt and Schmid, presumably by email, rather than continuing to discuss their critiques at the public meeting.
But City Attorney Molly Stump jumped in and told Shepherd that doing so would be a violation of the Brown act.
“The discussion needs to happen in public,” she said. If the majority of councilmembers discussed a matter with each other via email, it would constitute what’s called a “serial meeting”, which is prohibited.
Reporter kept out of meeting
When this Post reporter asked if she could attend the meeting yesterday at City Hall, the city clerk said it was not a public meeting. With only two council members in attendance, it wasn’t required to be open to the public under the Brown Act.
Burt initially said he was OK with a reporter from the Post attending the meeting, then reconsidered after talking to Stump. He said that Stump told him it wouldn’t be fair to make the meeting open without giving all members of the public the chance to attend.
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