San Juan Bautista city council members discussed the alleged Brown Act Violations concerning the agenda item that recommended the removal of planning commission chair, John Hopper, at the Nov. 21 city council meeting.
At the Nov. 8 special city council meeting Mayor Chris Martorana made a motion to remove Hopper without cause, prompting councilman John Freeman and members of the public to ask why the council was taking such action. As reported in BenitoLink, accusations about the possible violation of the Ralph Brown Act were revealed after Freeman said that Hopper’s removal was discussed among more than two council members. According to the Brown Act, it is illegal for members of public bodies to engage in communication among themselves outside of a public meeting. The motion failed, ending in a 2-3 vote to keep Hopper on the planning commission.
During the discussion city council members decided to cure the alleged violations. Public entities are allowed to cure or correct those allegations in order to avoid further legal processes from taking place.
Councilman Freeman asked the agenda item be “postponed indefinitely” because government code section 54 960.1 (a)(b) states a notice to cure must be given in writing.
San Juan Bautista City Attorney Deborah Mall responded saying, “That would be if a citizen or the district attorney brought a complaint against the city council, then they would file a written demand for a cure.”
She added that the district attorney, the grand jury, or a citizen has 30 days from the meeting to submit a written complaint that there was a Brown Act Violation at a city council meeting but that council members could cure themselves.
Councilman Freeman made a motion to table the item stating that it was “a divisive issue” and the council “should move beyond it.” He suggested it be addressed in the code of conduct.
Earlier in the meeting the council decided to form an Ad Hoc committee, made up of Martorana and Freeman, that would address the proposed code of conduct.
Vice-Mayor Jim West continued the conversation saying he was uncomfortable with tabling the agenda item. “I’m uncomfortable with doing that because I was accused of violating the Brown Act and like all accusations if they’re made in public, they float around and they get to be accepted. I’d like to explain my actions on this if that’s possible,” he said.
Mayor Chris Martorana agreed with West adding the accusations created a lot of discomfort and upset in the audience at the time.
“I’ve been accused of committing a crime. It is a criminal act. I’ve been accused of committing a criminal act and I’d like to be able to address that. In fact, I do believe there was a Brown Act violation and I’d love to address it,” he said.
Freeman said he wasn’t disagreeing with any of Martorana’s statements but was trying to handle the situation according to the procedure. Freeman continued to make the motion to table the item but failed to get a second and the discussion continued.
Martorana read a statement to the public.
“I’ve made every effort in my time on the city council to honor the letter and spirit of the Brown Act. I’ve never knowingly violated the act. It seems that I am now in violation through the actions of another city council member. Tonight, I will detail communications I’ve had with each council member regarding chairman Hopper since the meeting of Oct. 24, ” he read.
Martorana continued saying he commented to councilman Dan DeVries that he believed Hopper was intoxicated.
“With council member DeVries, I commented to him in an unrelated conversation… that I believed chairman Hopper was intoxicated during the Oct. 24 meeting. There was no discussion,” he said.
Councilman DeVries agreed with Martorana’s statement.
Martorana continued saying he had no communication with councilman Boch and Boch agreed.
He then addressed communication with vice-mayor West.
“Vice-mayor West asked the city manager if an action item to remove chairman Hopper could be added to the agenda of the Nov. 8 meeting. I responded by saying, ‘that any member of the council could add any item they wish to the agenda, any agenda, that didn’t need to be approved by me,'” he recounted. “I then called, I think a couple of days later, vice-mayor West and asked him to contact council member Freeman prior to the publication of the agenda. I asked [West] as a courtesy to tell [Freeman] that this item was going to be on the agenda for that meeting. There was no conversation about the circumstances, there was no conversation about the agenda item. It was just asking him to advise council member Freeman that the agenda item would be on the agenda because I didn’t want him to be blindsided by this issue.”
He then went on the describe his communication with Freeman.
“With council member Freeman I’ve had I think four conversations about chairman Hopper’s appearance at the Oct.24 meeting and its consequences,” he said. “They were to the best of my recollection, a phone call on or about the 26 of Oct. A second call intending to repeat the heads up that I asked vice-mayor West to make on or about Oct. 30.”
He added they had a “chance meeting” after the library mixer on Nov. 9 and had a conversation about it.
Martorana said their final meeting was on Nov. 15 where they meet at Freeman’s home.
“The subject of those four communications vary quite a bit” he said. “I expressed my grave concerns over the apparent intoxication of chairman Hopper at the Oct. 24 city council meeting. I had shared my similar concerns about his apparent intoxication at the previous parks planning meeting. I expressed to him my grave concern over the damage, to what I perceive as damage to the city’s reputation, the city government reputation, and the breach of public trust.”
He went on to say, ” Council member Freeman told me that he had admonished chairman Hopper for his appearance on Oct. 24. We discussed the operation of the planning commission and council member Freeman’s satisfaction with the operation of the planning commission and my general satisfaction with the operation of the commission.”
“We discussed the process for appointment and what I would describe as the balance of power on the planning commission. That refers to sort of pro and anti-growth camps that exist in the city and the balance of power specifically after the departure of the city manager. We discussed chairman Hopper’s medical condition,” he said. ” [Freeman] assured me chairman Hopper attributes the behavior during the Oct. 24 meeting to his medical condition. I expressed to [Freeman] that chairman Hopper had denied having been drinking on Oct. 24 and I related to him my conversation with one of the bar owners in town, who confirmed to me that Hopper had been drinking that afternoon. He had been in the bar and had been drinking prior to the meeting.”
He said he shared “threatening” text messages he received after 10 p.m. on Oct.31 with Freeman. “Not in any physical way but threatening the city with lawsuits and that sort of thing,” he said.
He continued saying he also gave Freeman a copy of an incident report that was turned into the city by Level 1 Private Security with incidents on the fourth and fifth of May where chairman Hopper made false emergency calls and later told a Level One private security officer that he was a city council member.
He said he and Freeman discussed reviewing all of the material in closed session “as has been suggested by a number of people” but that it wasn’t possible according to the Brown Act.
“Chairman Hopper is not an employee of the city. Therefore, we are not able to have a closed session discussion,” he said.
Martorana said they lastly discussed his motion to remove Chairman Hopper without cause. “What I expressed to council member Freeman was that I was doing that in an effort to avoid having to do this. Describing all of the, what I would call, transgressions of chairman Hopper publicly and let him quietly leave the planning commission,” he said.
He said the intent of his original call was to ask Hopper to resign.
Freeman said he “pretty much agreed” with Martorana’s statements adding, “I don’t believe you asked me to ask him to resign” but did remember talking about a resignation.
Freeman said he didn’t feel comfortable with talking about Hopper’s action adding he did appreciate Martorana and West’s call to try not to blindside him.
“I just disagree with the act of throwing a person out for reasons not related to job performance. If he came to city planning commission meetings intoxicated and did a poor job on the city planning commission I’d be the first to ask him to leave but that’s not what happened,” he said. “He saves his bad behavior for other venues.”
Martorana interjected, “Where he’s representing the city.”
Martorana later attempted to cut off Freeman saying his statements had nothing to do with the alleged Brown Act violations.
“It’s all part of the topic,” Freeman said in response. “You got to describe all of his transgressions so I get to defend him a little bit.”
Freeman went on to describe a conversation he had with councilman West at 3 p.m. on “Oct.24 or whatever the date was on that Friday.”
He said that he and West discussed the issues Martorana previously described saying he argued against those issues because he thought Hopper was doing a good job but didn’t disagree with them.
He continued saying he had a conversation with Martorana at 1 p.m. on the following Monday where he stated he disagreed with the decision. “I think that this council has a little bit of a habit of jumping gears. It’s like, isn’t there an intermediate step between ‘hey he’s a great guy, let’s fire him?” he said.
Freeman added that he and West discussed Hopper taking over for the city engineer with the purpose of going out to the Creek Bridge division. “I want to remind the board that we asked him to do that,” he said stating there were complaints of the community director, Matt Orbach, being rude to the developer.
Vice-mayor West said the situation was “upsetting” adding that people of the public want to know what is going on with city council.
“I can’t go anywhere in this town, the Windmill Market, Vertigo Coffee, the Post office, the Rotary Club, even on the street people stop me and ask me what’s going on. I’ve gotten calls from supervisors, county planning commissioners, I even got a call from Sheriff [Darren] Thompson about this issue, wanting to know what the heck we were doing down here in San Juan Bautista,” he said.
He went on the say that after overhearing a conversation Martorana was having with a community member at a Rotary meeting, Martorana directed him to go to the city manager.
“I went to the city manager and I said ‘what can we do’ and he gave me the ordinance that said you can remove without cause if you have a majority vote. At this point, I’ve been on the city council for three years and I don’t want to screw up anything, I don’t want to make the city look bad so, the one person I trust on this, who has been the senior city council member, I went to Tony Boch,” he said. “I said ‘Tony this is what I’m feeling’, it was the 26th when I got the ordinance. I said ‘look at this. Am I being a fool. Am I hurting the city? Is this something I should just shut up and sit down?’
He said Boch told him it would be alright and Freeman went over to West’s house where he gave him a copy of the ordinance saying he could remove a planning commissioner without cause.
After the meeting, Hopper told BenitoLink that while he didn’t know what the exact conversation was relative to the Brown Act Violation, but he did know that a violation occurred. Hopper, who had just arrived in town from the airport, was late and missed the discussion.
“I talked to four city council members, all of whom told me talked to each other,” he said. “There was a tactical, not what I think in reality legal attempt to cure that tonight by bringing this item on the agenda.”
He said that this wasn’t about his lack of integrity or ability to perform his duties but a “witch hunt” to find a reason to remove him because of his stance on growth.
“I have no hidden agenda here,” he said “The two city council members who have gained sympathy from a third city council member want to remove me because, I’m clearly in their minds, anti-growth and I’m not. I’m not anti-growth. I’m for well planned growth. I believe that well planned and informed decision making can guide the city to a greater economic development situation than we are now.”
He went on to address some of the statements made during the discussion.
“The night that the previous city manager was dismissed from duty. I was asked two days prior to produce a timeline report to the city council regarding the activities at Rancho Vista and how the original map had been changed. I did that. The next morning, I received negative comments from one of the city council members asking why I was trying to destroy the city. I did not answer that,” he recounts.
He went on to talk about statements made regarding Level 1 Private Security.
“I have never spoke to a Level 1 security officer,” he said. “I do know that a prankster, here in town, represented himself as myself to a security officer. I don’t know if it was Level one for a fact, and he told me about it later.”
He said that he did have a conversation with a Level 1 security officer on the night that they presented their original proposal “I had a very cordial and professional conversation because that’s the industry that I’m in,” he said.
He said that he was also concerned with the level of response of the Level 1 security officers because of “several complaints from citizens that they had been sweeping behind the restrooms at the ball park and the cemetery”.
“One night I arrived here sort of late after coming in from the airport and I decided to make a call stating that I was a local business owner and needed help closing my store just to test their response. I sent an email that next morning to report what had occurred to the mayor, I think, and to one or two city council members, and I think the city manager just saying ‘hey we need some improvement here,'” he said.
He also addressed the allegations of public intoxication saying they were not true.
“I have never attended a meeting where I was actually in charge of that meeting or officiating over… where I felt I was impaired by my medication or any other intoxicating drug,” he said. “The night of Oct.24 I was not intoxicated. However, other medical conditions which I suffer from may have affected me.”
“If the city council and their infamous wisdom thinks this is a reoccurring issue. I just might remind them of one subtle fact. Recently, we faced an incident where one of their own had to lay down his sword and say he had a bad night. I personally have bad days all the time. I survived three cancer surgeries but every day I do the best I can do for this town. I do it with my heart, I do it with my wisdom,” he said.