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San Diego Union-Tribune

NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

Chargers task force's Denver trip spurs dispute | State open- meeting law may have been broken

September 21, 2002

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Copyright SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE PUBLISHING COMPANY Sep 21, 2002

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A planned weekend trip to Denver's new stadium has unleashed a heated debate on how the state's open-meeting law applies to the Citizens' Task Force on Chargers Issues.

At last count, the task force may have inadvertently committed several violations of the law, known as the Brown Act. The group's chairman acknowledges some mistakes were made in setting up the trip at last week's meeting and has rescheduled the entire matter for the task force's next meeting, which will be held Thursday at Qualcomm Stadium.

The City Council set up the 15-member task force to examine what, if anything, might be done to keep the Chargers in San Diego, incuding construction of a new stadium with or without public financing.

Toward the end of the group's Sept. 12 meeting, the topic of a trip to Denver was introduced. After a brief debate, the group voted 11-3 to visit the new stadium at a cost of about $20,000.

But the trip wasn't noted on the group's agenda, which is usually considered a violation of the Brown Act because the general public must have notice of items being discussed in order to participate.

"I think it accidentally was (a violation)," said David Watson, a local lawyer who serves as chairman of the task force, when reached for comment late Thursday.

Watson said he had picked up on the mistake and talked with Assistant City Attorney Les Girard on how to correct it, which would be to invalidate the action, put it back on the agenda and revote.

However, when reached for comment yesterday, Girard said he was not yet prepared to concede that the vote on the trip violated the state's open-meeting law. Committees set up to examine single issues don't necessarily have to place each action item on their agendas, Girard said.

During their Sept. 12 debate, task force members also insisted that the entire task force go on the trip, instead of a small delegation. Yet the Brown Act doesn't allow legislative bodies to meet outside their jurisdiction, again to prevent decisions from being reached in private.

That point, Girard concedes, was missed.

Faced with that prospect, task force members apparently discussed the issue privately yesterday, committing another potential violation of the Brown Act.

Afterward, task force member Joe Martinez sent an e-mail to seven fellow panelists as well as city officials. In it, he relayed the concerns regarding the need to keep the Denver delegation down to half the task force.

"Chairman Watson asked me -- in the capacity of Co-Chair of the Facilities/Redevelopment Committee -- to select the seven," Martinez stated in his e-mail.

The e-mail went on to list seven members -- Watson, Geoff Patnoe, Pepper Coffey, Bill Largent, Cassandra Clady, Patti Roscoe and Martinez -- who would make the trip.

Other task force members said the e-mail appears more authoritative than it was because there were ongoing discussions about it. Yet the Brown Act specifically prohibits a majority from using technological devices "to develop a collective concurrence as to action to be taken."

Girard disagrees that the e-mail was a violation.

"E-mail is of no consequence, because as I understand it, they're soliciting volunteers to go, if the task force votes to send less than a quorum," he said. "So in my opinion, there is no problem with the e-mail because the task force has not made a decision yet on whether to send less than a quorum. They're going to do that next Thursday."

Task force member Bruce Henderson, who along with Watson and Tim Considine voted against the Denver trip, said the deliberations over the stadium visit were troubling.

"We're getting into some very arbitrary actions here," Henderson said. He added that the Brown Act issues highlighted a lack of assistance from the city manager and City Attorney's Office.

"No one is thinking these things out," Henderson said.

Girard says his office is on top of the issue and providing adequate support.

"Nobody picked up on the fact that it was voted on and wasn't on the agenda, not even Bruce Henderson, who is an experienced City Council person," Girard said. "It was an oversight, and they're going to revote on it again at a noticed public meeting."

Norberto Santana: (619) 718-5069; norberto.santana@uniontrib.com



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