Did Morro Bay Council Meeting Violate the Law?

On April 25, the City of Morro Bay held a discussion on a new wastewater treatment facility that has already generated plenty of acrimony at city council meetings. This time, city officials tried a different approach, inviting volunteers from the local League of Women Voters to moderate the discussion.

This particular meeting was meant to gather answers from experts without some of the heated and unhelpful rhetoric that has plagued meetings past. But at least one resident has complained that the city violated the law.

Sadowski alleges the city council violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state law that guarantees public access to local government meetings, by preventing members of the public from speaking or making written statements at a special meeting to discuss the status of the city's proposed water reclamation facility…

Sadowski's complaint argued that the city violated the law by preventing people from speaking at the meeting; league volunteers only accepted written questions, no written statements were allowed. Questions also were screened, and some — especially pertaining to the project's cost — were not asked because League Co-President Marilee Hyman said she felt they could not be answered at that event.

Two legal experts interviewed by the San Luis Obispo Tribune seem to agree, although one was far more convinced of the city’s error than the other.

"Forcing the public to participate in the meeting through an intermediary completely violates the Brown Act," said California News Publishers Association legal counsel Nikki Moore. "The entire purpose of public comment is to permit individuals the opportunity to speak to the public officials and express their own perspective, in their own words. Funneling communications through a single person who verbally presents another person’s comment is absolutely insufficient, in fact, it’s offensive. I am surprised the city is standing behind the decision to conduct public comment in this manner."

First Amendment Coalition executive director David Snyder was less pointed, calling the violation "kind of on the margins.” He added that Sadowski would have a good -- but by no means a ‘slam-dunk’ -- case in court.

"The fact that they only allowed questions, to me, is more important," he said.

Sadowski hasn’t said whether or not she’s planning to sue. If she does, Mayor Jamie Irons warns the city will fight it and seek to recoup attorneys’ fees if Sadowski loses.

Morro Bay City Attorney Joseph Pannone says the city did not violate open meeting laws at its April 25 discussion. Cities are allowed to modify the public comment period "depending on the nature and the context of the meeting" he said, adding that the city "is fully appreciative of the Brown Act, and it follows the Brown Act.”