Grand jury: Patterson City Council violated state’s open-meeting law

rahumada@modbee.comJune 27, 2014 

A civil grand jury has found that the Patterson City Council violated California’s open-meeting law by failing to publicly release information from its meetings in a timely manner.

The grand jury’s inquiry began with a complaint that the council held closed-door sessions to discuss negotiations for city properties identified only by the assessor’s parcel numbers.

The complainant said most residents lack access or don’t know how to access parcel numbers and may not know which properties are being negotiated, according to the grand jury report released Friday.

The report doesn’t indicate which property negotiations were in question, but such negotiations could indicate the city was selling, purchasing, leasing or renting property. The grand jury examined City Council meeting minutes and agendas from May 2012 through September.

The grand jury found that the addresses of the properties were available, but city officials acknowledged that they failed to include the addresses in the council’s agenda. The grand jury recommended that those addresses be listed in the agenda, along with the names of the negotiators and legal entities involved.

“An informed citizenry is important to our form of governance,” the grand jury wrote. “Though the purchase of foregoing property was vetted in the local newspaper, there are those members of the public who depend on the formal reports of government to follow the action it has taken.”

During its investigation of the property negotiations, the grand jury discovered that City Council minutes, for both regular and closed-session meetings, were not approved and published in a timely manner.

The average delay from the meeting to the approval of minutes was 63 days, with the longest delay reaching 151 days, the grand jury found. The Patterson City Council has not shown a sense of urgency in approving meeting minutes, according to the report. In addition, videos of City Council meetings were not posted on the city’s website and were difficult to find and access.

The grand jury said the City Council should approve the previous meeting’s minutes at the beginning of the next meeting. Videos of council meetings, the grand jury said, should be posted on the city’s website within two business days, which is similar to other cities in the region.

California’s open-meeting law, known as the Brown Act for its author, Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, requires city councils, school boards and other local governing bodies to provide information to the public in a timely manner. “The Brown Act recognizes this need by requiring the information to be given to the public and the scheduling of the information’s delivery,” the grand jury wrote about Patterson’s City Council.

The grand jury recommended that the city administration follow up and report whether improvements in releasing information and providing access have been made.

Housing Authority violations cited

The Housing Authority of Stanislaus County was also found to have violated the Brown Act by failing to post the time of a rescheduled meeting on the window outside its building. The grand jury witnessed the agency post information about the rescheduled meeting only on its website and inside the building’s lobby. The information wasn’t visible to those arriving for the meeting, which was scheduled after business hours.

The grand jury also recommended that the agency bar pets from the Housing Authority building after it was learned that a manager had brought a pet to work.

The housing authority also has assigned a manager to make bank deposits as a result of safety concerns. An interviewee told the grand jury that more than one employee should make bank deposits, because it’s unsafe. The grand jury did not make a recommendation on this issue.

The grand jury did recommend that the housing authority keep clients’ files in a locked vault or filing cabinet at all times. A complaint was made during the investigation that client files were left on desks and on the office floor for long periods of times, and that the agency had no way of securing the files.

The grand jury, a watchdog panel, is appointed by the presiding judge of the Superior Court to serve a one-year term. Its recommendations are not legally binding, but officials have 90 days to respond in writing to the findings.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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