City's meeting with Cogdill a violation

December 08, 2002 11:00 pm

By JASON ECK

Four of Sonora City Council's five members violated state open meeting laws when they met with state Assemblyman Dave Cogdill and discussed with him a possible city sales tax increase, according to two legal experts on public meeting law.

Council members would not say the impromptu Oct. 9 meeting violated California's Ralph M. Brown Act, but four of five concede it might have.

Passed in 1953, the Brown Act requires public business to be done in public and that meetings involving a majority of an elected, public board be announced in advance.

The law applies to public commissions, city councils and county boards of supervisors, but not to state government agencies. It details what constitutes a meeting and when local elected officials are allowed to meet in private. The law specifically says a quorum cannot meet behind closed doors except for in certain, specific cases.

The meeting with Cogdill is not one of the allowed closed sessions, according to the Brown Act.

The subject came up at a Brown Act seminar at City Hall on Wednesday night with local attorney Patrick Greenwell, who served for about four years as county counsel. He conducted the seminar for city and county officials, the public and the press. Part of Greenwell's practice still consists of work with governmental agencies on Brown Act cases.

At the session, Greenwell said that had the city council met with Cogdill only in order for him to present information about issues non-specific to Sonora, the meeting might have been within the law.

When the council broached specific city business — mainly the legislative support and steps required to allow the city to put a sales tax increase before voters — is when the violation occurred, Greenwell said.

"It's possible we came very close, or may have (violated the Brown Act). I don't know," Mayor Marlee Powell said.

She was one of the four council members at the meeting with Cogdill, along with Ron Stearn, David Sheppard and Hank Russell. Councilwoman Liz Bass was working that day and did not attend.