The San Mateo City Council has pledged to uphold a higher standard of public transparency after several public complaints about possible Brown Act violations at a Dec. 9 Housing Leadership Council meeting attended by the council.
“We are going to need to take it upon ourselves more to not assume that other organizers of events understand the nuances and various aspects of the Brown Act, said Mayor Eric Rodriguez. “We are going to have to take responsibility for that ourselves.”
A report from San Mateo City Attorney Shawn Mason found two supporters of Measure Y had their event registration canceled for a Dec. 9 meeting with the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing housing in the Bay Area. One of the supporters who had their registration canceled attempted to attend the virtual meeting before having their attendance cut off. The meeting included topics on housing in San Mateo and Measure Y and lasted about an hour, with more than 100 people attending. All five councilmembers attended the meeting for various periods, with three speaking. Mason spoke with members of the Housing Leadership Council and determined the meeting was well-publicized and that a Housing Leadership Council staff member, not anybody with the city, canceled the registrations of the two people and prevented one of them from attending the event. The report found no one at the Housing Leadership Council notified the members of the City Council about registration cancelation.
“These facts show that there was no reason for the council to know that the members of the public were denied access to the event, and the meeting did appear to be well-publicized and open to the public,” Mason said.
One of the supporters denied access to the meeting filed a letter of concern with the city about potential Brown Act violations. 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 happen in open and public meeting settings to promote transparency instead of informal, private settings. Public complaints about potential Brown Act violations soon followed, and the City Council asked the city at its Jan. 4 to look into the matter and determine what happened.
The city released the letter of concern to the public, which was filed by Taso Zografos, who said at the Jan. 19 City Council meeting he wanted to know that the council would represent him equally and inclusively.
“I believe this act was a damaging effect on the public trust of the City Council. The City Council cannot govern effectively without public trust. My complaint of a presumed perceived Brown Act violation was intended to ensure that we protect that public trust,” Zografos said.
Councilwoman Amourence Lee said it was shocking that members of the public who had registered for the event had been excluded and did not represent her experience in signing up for the meeting. She used an open registration process and said there was no indication from the process she went through that there would be an effort to exclude anyone. In the future, Lee said she would check in with the city to make sure any future events the City Council is invited to have an open and transparent process and meets all requirements.
“This council has demonstrated in this meeting and time and time through our history and our action that we are working hard for the people, all of you, all people, and we will continue to uphold the process, a fair process. We do not in any way take for granted the public trust,” Lee said.
Councilwoman Diane Papan said the pandemic had created a new normal of virtual meetings, creating different standards and problems around access and privacy. She said if she knew people were excluded from the meeting, it would have been an issue for her and the council.
“Part of this job is listening, and it is listening to all sides, and I will continue to do that, and I will make sure in the future that whoever is controlling the meeting isn’t excluding anyone,” Papan said.
Councilman Joe Goethals said he was sorry anyone was excluded from the meeting but is glad people can watch the meeting video online to know what happened. He said he and the council are here for the entire city, not just one specific group, and he will do everything he can to address the serious issue of housing in San Mateo.
“I am sorry anybody was excluded from the meeting. I don’t think that we knew that that happened, and it shouldn’t have happened,” Goethals said.
Councilman Rick Bonilla said he had no idea people were excluded and said he spent the Dec. 9 meeting urging people to get involved in the General Plan process, which is the same thing he would do in any other room or meeting.
“Measure Y is the law, and I never said anything about trying to get rid of Measure Y, but I do believe we need to work towards building more affordable housing,” Bonilla said.
Mason said he could not comment on any specific discussions with the council about Brown Act violations because of attorney-client privilege. However, he does not expect the city to take any additional action on this topic in the future.
After originally declining to release the Dec. 9 meeting video, the Housing Leadership Council released the video Jan. 15. People can watch the meeting on the Housing Leadership Council YouTube page at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Myfw6AnY6lI&t=1989s.
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