As new members of the Hollister City Council look to be active in the community, the city manager cautioned them to review the Ralph M. Brown Act to avoid violations.
The issue came up during the Dec. 17 regular council meeting after Mayor Ignacio Velazquez and Councilmembers Marty Richman and Rolan Resendiz reported encountering each other at various events.
The Brown Act is a California law passed in 1953 that ensures the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local governing bodies, such as the Hollister City Council or San Benito County Board of Supervisors. The act also prohibits members of governing bodies from discussing issues concerning their local government outside of public meetings.
“I noticed that most of you are becoming more involved in community events and three of you may end up in the same location,” City Manager Bill Avera said at the Dec. 17 meeting. “Please understand that’s absolutely okay, but I would also suggest you mind your p’s and q’s when you’re doing that because perception is everything.”
Avera said he didn’t want to discourage councilmembers from attending events, but also didn’t want to face a situation where actions are questioned because members attended the same event.
According to First Amendment Coalition, councilmembers can attend public meetings without violating the Brown Act as long as they “do not discuss among themselves matters within their jurisdiction.”
However, if a majority of councilmembers, three in the case of the five-seat Hollister City Council, attend the same event and discuss issues that pertain to the council, by state law it is considered a meeting and violates the Brown Act.
Avera said councilmembers would participate in a lecture about it during the League of California Cities conference for new mayors and councilmembers on Jan. 16-18 in Sacramento.
City Clerk Christine Black suggested that councilmembers sit at different tables if they attend the same events.
Councilmember Resendiz said the general rule the council agreed on to avoid conflict was the first two councilmembers to the event were allowed to stay, while others, if they attended, would have to leave.
While Avera said it was fine if that was the rule the council came up with, Mayor Velazquez said they would work on tweaking the rule because it’s not fair for other councilmembers who want to attend events.
Local jurisdictions in San Benito County are cautious when it comes to the Brown Act, as several have faced allegations of violating the state law in recent years.
In 2017, San Juan Bautista City Council faced allegations of Brown Act violations over the removal of then Planning Commission chairman John Hopper.
The Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital Board of Directors also faced Brown Act violation allegations this year when San Benito Health Care District candidate Frank Barragan said he apparently triggered the cancellation of a Sept. 8 meeting after he questioned the hospital board’s adherence to the Brown Act in an email sent to board members and local media.
At the time, hospital board member Ariel Hurtado told BenitoLink that the Sept. 8 closed session was canceled after word got out that it was taking place, because the board knew it would be violating the Brown Act. Hurtado also said the board had violated the Brown Act more than once while discussing the fate of the hospital.
San Benito High School students Vanessa Sanchez and Ariana Fabian asked the city council to look into a ban on flavored tobacco products.
Sanchez said that in April she and her peers gave a presentation to the council on the dangers of flavored tobacco and how companies target youth. After that presentation, the council said they would form a committee to address the issue, she added.
Bans on flavored tobacco products have been enacted in Saratoga, Santa Cruz and Marin counties, Fabian said.
Avera requested to give the council an updated report on flavored tobacco, past discussions and recommendations at the Jan. 22 meeting. Velazquez also asked for an update on laws regulating flavored tobacco sales as he said they had changed since the council last discussed the topic.
Aligning council and commissioner terms
The council also looked into improving language so that newly elected councilmembers can appoint commissioners.
“I felt it was important for all of you to pick your own commission members,” Velazquez said. “In the past they were by terms and you were given the commissioner that was there before.”
The city is expected to examine making changes at a special meeting in January, and to appoint someone to fill the District 1 planning commissioner seat vacated by Councilwoman Carol Lenoir, who was appointed to the city council earlier this year after former member Ray Friend retired.
Three meetings a month
Councilman Marty Richman asked to agendize a discussion about adding a third meeting every month to focus on city projects. The council generally meets twice a month.
“With all the items we are going to have in the fire, all the things that you were promised during this election by me and by other people, I intend to try to deliver,” Richman said. “I didn’t take this job to be a bump on a log.”
Velazquez agreed with Richman and said the first meeting needs to be about the city’s finances, as well as a report to inform the public about what appears on the residents’ property tax bill.
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