Brown recuses self for open meetings act violation
A routine commission appointment took a bizarre turn at Monday’s Sonoma City Council meeting when a council member recused himself after admitting he violated the Brown Act.
The Brown Act is California’s open meeting law. In Sonoma, it does not allow elected or appointed officials to confer on items with more than one other fellow decision-maker, unless they are in open session.
Councilmember Ken Brown stepped down from the dais and left the room after reading a prepared statement in which he said he had discussed the vacant Planning Commission seat with both Councilmembers Tom Rouse and Steve Barbose, prior to the listing of the appointment on the agenda.
The item – the appointment of James K. Cribb to the Planning Commission – was removed from the consent calendar by Barbose, so that the issue could be aired. That’s when Brown made the following statement. “I need to recuse myself from this issue. Over time, I did talk to two council members about elements of this issue. I did not tell one council member what the other member said or felt about the item. As a result, no collective concurrence was arrived at as how to vote on this item. I believe in the importance of the Brown Act and in the spirit of transparency, I will step down.”
Mayor Joanne Sanders said she discovered the violation when she asked to discuss the appointment with Barbose, who said he had already talked to Brown and could not consult with her, and then went to Rouse, who made the same claim. It appears neither Barbose nor Rouse was aware of Brown’s discussion with others.
“All six candidates were strong,” said Sanders. “Mr. Cribb has served eight years on the Design Review Commission, he is educated and is a small business owner. It is troubling that there is a cloud over his appointment.”
Barbose said he agreed that Cribb was qualified, but “tradition and custom” dictates the appointment of the alternate to the position. In this case, the alternate is Bill Willers, who has served in the position for the past year. “The alternate accepts his role, prepares and attends the meetings. He participates often. If our alternates do not have an expectation of being appointed to the next vacancy, we won’t get people to apply as alternates,” said Barbose.
He suggested taking no action on the item and bringing back a new item at the next meeting appointing Willers to the regular position and Cribb to the alternate.
Councilman Rouse disagreed, saying the appointment is the mayor’s to make, and the council should ratify.
The municipal code states that appointments to city commissions shall be filled by nomination of the mayor and ratification by the city council. Language in several places says the “council” appoints. The code further states, “In the event that a vacancy occurs on a board or commission, upon nomination by the mayor and ratification by the city council, the alternate may be appointed to the vacancy without further recruitment for a replacement for the regular member.” All alternates must be resident electors of the city.
Councilmember Laurie Gallian weighed in and said she had spoken to Willers who had expected to be appointed. She said her objection to the process used was that “custom and tradition” also required a second person assisting the mayor in the interview process. When Rouse, who had volunteered to assist, had a conflict, instead of rescheduling the mayor interviewed on her own.
Sanders defended her action. “We do not automatically appoint alternates to the regular position.”
No action was taken on the item. Barbose said he would like to bring the matter back.
Sanders said he would have to wait to appoint a new commissioner until after she leaves office next month.