Though the DA's office took no action for violating the Brown Act, it did warn against any further violations. Photo by John Chadwell.
Though the DA's office took no action for violating the Brown Act, it did warn against any further violations. Photo by John Chadwell.

The San Benito County District Attorney Candice Hooper’s office announced, in a roundabout way, that Hollister resident Mia Casey was right when she accused Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez of violating the Ralph M. Brown Act, during the March 7 City Council meeting and asked the DA’s office to investigate.

After much scrutiny of the information gathered throughout the course of this investigation, my office has determined that it is appropriate to remind City Council that Government Code section 54954.3(c) does allow criticism of City Council during public comment,” investigator Heather Belton wrote in a March 31 letter to the City Council that did not specifically name the mayor. (Full letter attached)

First Amendment legal expert David Loy, of the First Amendment Coalition, said of the decision to admonish the council, “If you want to sit on the City Council you have to be willing to take the heat and criticism from the public. That’s just how democracy works.”

Casey had claimed Velazquez violated the Brown Act’s Chapter Section 54954.3, Subsection C which states: “The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body.”

Belton wrote: “The District Attorney’s Office appreciates and promotes the importance of, and obligation to investigate complaints of this nature by citizens of San Benito County. The issuance of this letter will, it is hoped, not only accomplish the twin purposes of educating yourselves and the public as to the requirements of the act but also will act as a guidepost by which future Brown Act violations may be avoided.”

She added a caution: “Please be mindful during public comment portions of all meetings, of a citizen’s right to freely express criticism of city officials. A citizen’s right to voice their opinion and criticism of City Council members or City Council, as a whole, is permissible, per The Brown Act, again, as long as it does not disrupt or threaten the City Council’s ability to conduct meetings in a safe and orderly manner.”

Casey told BenitoLink on April 11 that she was gratified to learn that the District Attorney’s Office had determined there was a violation of the Brown Act.

“I am hopeful the council will heed the DA’s warning and people’s voices will no longer be silenced,” she said. “It is my understanding the council also plans to get an outside legal opinion with regard to the unconstitutionality of the language in their new code of conduct.” 

Hollister City Manager Brett Miller confirmed the city is searching for an outside attorney for advice.

Loy agreed with Casey that the mayor not only violated the Brown Act, but he also violated Casey’s First Amendment rights. After reading Belton’s letter he told BenitoLink he appreciated the fact that the District Attorney’s Office reminded the City Council that it would be held accountable to the Brown Act.

“I hope it solves the problem,” he said. “It didn’t cite the independent First Amendment rights, but as a practical matter, the Brown Act protects the rights of the First Amendment. The important thing is the free speech rights of the public are being protected.” 

“I trust that the professionalism I observed by members of the City Council is the rule and not the exception,” Belton said. After viewing videos of the meetings, she added, “I am confident that is the case, as I get the sense all members of Hollister City Council understand the gravity of their responsibility and accountability to this community. We have already observed what appears to be increased tolerance of criticism during public comment in more recent City Council meetings we recently viewed. This observation is encouraging.”

Council members Dolores Morales and Rick Perez told BenitoLink that going forward they will call for a “point-of-order,” rather than do nothing when they feel a fellow council member has violated the city code of ethics or the Brown Act. A point-of-order is a question as to whether the present proceedings are in order or allowed by the rules of parliamentary procedure.

Belton concluded that there would be no further action taken, “as this council has remediated the issue and hope that by bringing these issues to your attention will help guide your continuing efforts to comply with the Brown Act.”


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John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...