San Mateo is determining if any potential Brown Act violations occurred at a Dec. 9 Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County digital event attended by members of the City Council, with city staff presenting its report at the Jan. 19 council meeting.
The Dec. 9 event was put on by the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, a nonprofit organization working for more affordable housing in San Mateo County and the Bay Area. The focus was to thank those who worked on the campaign against Measure Y, a controversial building heights limit initiative that narrowly passed in November. All five members of the City Council attended the public event for various amounts of time, according to Evelyn Stivers, the executive director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County. The event was originally scheduled to be a small decompression event for the 17 people who RSVP’d. The call grew to include around 125 people at one point, including some elected officials, Stivers said. Some of the hourlong event topics focused on thanking everyone involved with the no on Measure Y campaign, next steps for the housing organization and its supporters, and the need to show up and participate in meetings for the 2040 General Plan. Stivers declined to provide a video recording of the meeting to help clarify details about the event.
Mayor Eric Rodriguez said he was at the virtual event for approximately 30 minutes and listened in to the call, but was not a participant. He has received emails and calls about the event and thinks having a report at a council meeting for the public to comment on is better than letting it simmer behind the scenes.
“I personally do not believe that a Brown Act violation occurred,” he said via email.
The Ralph M. Brown Act is a state policy that applies to legislative bodies and local government agencies, like the San Mateo City Council. It requires government business to be conducted at open and public meetings that promote transparency instead of informal, private settings.
Councilman Joe Goethals said he was only on the call for about five minutes and didn’t discuss anything that was going to be voted on by the city.
“I thanked people for working on the campaign,” Goethals said.
Goethals believes the complaints are being driven by “malicious agitators.”
“The public trust is very important. This council takes it very seriously. I know that each member of the council is acting in the best interest of our residents. The individuals who are trying to undermine that public trust, they know what they are doing,” Goethals said.
Councilwomen Amourence Lee and Diane Papan both declined to comment on the Dec. 9 meeting before the city presents its report at the Jan. 19 council meeting. Deputy Mayor Rick Bonilla also declined to provide comment. Bonilla missed the Jan. 4 City Council meeting due to illness, according to city staff.
At the Jan. 4 council meeting, Rodriguez said a San Mateo resident submitted a Dec. 22 complaint with city staff expressing concern he was excluded from the Dec. 9 event. The complaint voiced concern this was a Brown Act violation. The complaint alleged that three councilmembers had participated in a secret meeting and that some members of the public were excluded, Rodriguez said. In response to complaints and emails about the subject, Rodriguez asked City Attorney Shawn Mason to look into the matter and report back to the City Council about his findings.
“This council highly values transparency in conducting the public’s business and takes seriously the public’s concerns expressed in these emails. City staff is looking into these events and will be reporting its findings to the City Council,” Rodriguez said.
The city will have an agenda item at its Jan. 19 meeting to address the topic, receive staff findings and share the city’s findings with the public.
“The more light we can shine on this, the better it will be for everyone,” Rodriguez said.
Mason said the city would look into the matter and determine the facts. The city will present its report Jan. 19, so the public can be aware of details like what happened, what was discussed and who was present.
“There may be a legal aspect to that that I share with the councilmembers confidentially. The council can choose to allow that to be made public too, and the council can make that decision when we meet again on this topic,” Mason said.
On Thursday, Mason said the city had just begun looking into what happened and could not provide any further details. The report’s primary purpose will be to determine what happened and any information on the event, which may or may not lead to legal analysis. No lawsuits have been filed against the city based on the issue, Mason said.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said by email on Friday his office had not heard anything from the city of San Mateo regarding any possible Brown Act violation. Any potential violations are not required to be reported to the DA’s Office, but it has been standard practice in San Mateo County, Wagstaffe said.
Michael Weinhauer, spokesman for San Mateans for Responsive Government, a pro Measure Y group, said the potential Brown Act violations are concerning. However, he believes the bigger issue is that a meeting was held that not everyone could attend, showing a lack of compromise and trust with the public and those for Measure Y.
“I’m much more concerned about the lack of transparency,” Weinhauer said.
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