Attorney: Napa Pipe meeting broke law

2012-02-27T20:00:00Z 2012-04-05T20:46:45Z Attorney: Napa Pipe meeting broke lawPETER JENSEN Napa Valley Register
February 27, 2012 8:00 pm  • 

The Napa County District Attorney’s Office will review a local attorney’s claim that last week’s meeting on Napa Pipe may have violated California’s open meeting law.

In an email to District Attorney Gary Lieberstein, attorney John L. Poole said he believed that the meeting violated the law, called the Brown Act, because citizens wrote down questions about the project instead of speaking directly to the county Planning Commission.

Lieberstein wrote back that he would pass the concern on to his investigation unit for review, according to a copy of the email. He noted that his office has jurisdiction to investigate all Brown Act violations involving county agencies.

The county Planning Commission held the special meeting last Tuesday at the Napa Valley Opera House to allow residents to ask questions about the Napa Pipe development project to county Planning Director Hillary Gitelman and the project’s developer, Keith Rogal.

Gitelman flatly denied Poole’s claim. Last week’s Planning Commission meeting was continued until March 19, when the public will be encouraged to offer comments orally, she said.

“I don’t think any Brown Act violation occurred,” Gitelman said Monday. “The hearing is still ongoing. I hope people will come on the 19th and make their comments.”

After hearing public comments on March 19, the commission intends to close the public hearing and open discussion on whether to recommend that the Board of Supervisors adopt General Plan and zoning ordinance amendments allowing Napa Pipe to be built.

Tuesday’s meeting agenda stated that residents wishing to speak about the project “may do so upon receiving recognition from the Chairperson. After being recognized by the Chairperson, please step to one of the microphones and state your name and address and make your presentation.”

However, citizens weren’t provided a microphone at the meeting, only slips of paper so they could write down questions. Commission Chair Mike Basayne asked those questions to Rogal and Gitelman.

In his email, Poole — who is the husband of Napa City Councilwoman Juliana Inman — questioned if that procedure violated language in the Brown Act. The act states in part, “Every notice for a special meeting shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body.”

Poole said, “I have not researched the matter, it’s just my gut reaction that a public agency cannot gag public comment. The public could have been allowed to speak without microphones, or a microphone of a commissioner borrowed, if they really wanted to allow public testimony.”

A violation of the Brown Act could lead to a warning from the district attorney, civil court action that could reverse action or decisions, or possible misdemeanor charges if the violations continue, according to the California Attorney General’s Office.

Basayne declined to comment Monday and deferred questions to the Napa County Counsel’s Office. County Counsel Robert Westmeyer did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Gitelman said it was her idea to use the meeting’s written question-and-answer format. She said she wanted to do so because of the complexity of the Napa Pipe project, and to allow the public to get questions answered about its voluminous environmental impact report.

“That was my idea and I think it worked fairly well,” Gitelman said.

In his email, Poole said that because the commission didn’t allow citizens to do what the agenda stated they could do, the proceeding was legally invalid.

“Even if you disagree (that) the right to publicly address means the right to speak rather than write notes, you cannot deny that the notice is in conflict with what was actually allowed,” Poole said.

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(13) Comments

  1. gettingreal
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    gettingreal - February 27, 2012 9:23 pm
    NVR said "state your name and address and make your presentation"
    What does your address have to do with your opinion on Napa pipe? Do they plan a courtesy visit after the meeting?
  2. NapaCitizen
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    NapaCitizen - February 27, 2012 9:46 pm
    The meeting was advertised as a public comment/information exchange -- clearly it was just a dog and pony show to move this ill-advised project forward.

    Collecting questions -- and censoring which ones would be answered is the tactic. The City/County staff and Rogal have a vested interest in getting this pushed through -- all on flawed logic that this "neighborhood" would not need water, schools, cause traffic issues, etc.

    Rogal's involvement in COPIA, NVTPA, etc are clearly his way of attempting to get his Napa Pipe project pushed through as if its good for everyone.

    No one will take a train up valley that does not go anywhere they want to stop. Californians are car people. Commuters are not going to take a bus for hours - that does not run where they need to go in an acceptable timeframe.

    The format of what was billed as a "Growth Summit" a few years back was nothing other than facilitated discussions which involved NO input and accused folks of NIMBYism. Nice try folks.
    Report Abuse
    REPUBLICANKID - February 27, 2012 10:31 pm
    If Rogal wants to throw his money down a "Rat hole" that is his business. The problem is there is going to be a lot of tax money going down the same hole. Please spare me the Bush spent money on to wars line. This meeting will be the first of many flawed things to happen during the project. I do have a side question is the NP land in a flood zone? If so will flood control moneys need to go there?
  4. RalphMouth
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    RalphMouth - February 28, 2012 6:14 am
    This meeting was a classic bait and switch situation.
  5. tramky
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    tramky - February 28, 2012 7:33 am
    An so does the Brown Act actually restrict the public's ability to "address the legislative body" to the spoken word. Most people are NOT comfortable in situations involving public speaking--it can cause anxiety, stage fright, or worse.

    Leave it to an attorney to try to stifle communication in this way. This is not really about open meetings and communication, it is actually about stifling public participation by setting things up so that ONLY public SPEAKERS can ask questions or participate at such meetings.

    Watch out for this one folks--this is full of lawyerly snakes and demonstrates the reality of the Brown Act, which is NOTHING like what it is cracked up to be.
  6. Old Time Napkin
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    Old Time Napkin - February 28, 2012 7:36 am
    Looks to me like Ms.Geitelman attended the Mike Thompson School on how to hold a public forum. Submit written questions and then pick the ones you want to answer. Lieberstein's office should not be investigating this charge. He'll whitewash it because the planning department is a county office. This should be investigated by the Fair Political Practices Commission.
    Republicankid may have hit on a point about the flood zone. I recall that the old Kaiser Steel plant did in fact flood on several occasions and it shut down the plant. No matter what they do about flood control this property is next to the river. If mother nature decides to rain hard enough this place and others will in fact flood.
  7. Joe B
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    Joe B - February 28, 2012 9:25 am
    Like the Kid said, tax money will go down this “Rat hole” at this point Rogal is just trying to keep his shirt on.
  8. Report Abuse
    - February 28, 2012 11:57 am
    What? A city committee that violates the Brown Act? No never.......Not!
  9. vocal-de-local
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    vocal-de-local - February 28, 2012 12:47 pm
    Someone made a valid point about how public speaking shy people may not be represented. I'm one of them. I think the best solution here is to allow both modes of questions to be asked - verbal and written questions. This way, everyone can become a participant and it won't appear as though there's a filtering process going on with questions. Limit the time a speaker can be up there and the number of questions per person that can be asked. This way, a few people cannot monopolize the meeting. Randomly draw the written questions and alternate the written ones with the verbal ones.
  10. vocal-de-local
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    vocal-de-local - February 28, 2012 12:53 pm
    REPUBLICANKID said: "If Rogal wants to throw his money down a "Rat hole" that is his business. The problem is there is going to be a lot of tax money going down the same hole. Please spare me the Bush spent money on to wars line. "

    LOL! I don't think you have to worry about such arguments on this particular subject. It's one of the few issues which put both liberals and republicans on the same side. The synergy between two groups of people who are typically battling it out brings a smile to my face. When we work together, we have a much stronger voice.

  11. Straight Talk
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    Straight Talk - February 28, 2012 2:00 pm
    Brown Act
    54953.3. A member of the public shall not be required, as a condition to attendance at a meeting of a legislative body of a local agency, to register his or her name, to provide other information, to complete a questionnaire, or otherwise to fulfill any condition precedent to his or her attendance.

    If an attendance list, register, questionnaire, or other similar document is posted at or near the entrance to the room where the meeting is to be held, or is circulated to the persons present during the meeting, it shall state clearly that the signing, registering, or completion of the document is voluntary, and that all persons may attend the meeting regardless of whether a person signs, registers, or completes the document.
  12. napa333
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    napa333 - February 28, 2012 2:11 pm
    Tramky, are you serious about what you wrote? I find your logic (?) extremely laughable . You sound like a Rogal supporter trying to stifle people who are opposed to this project . If you folks are upset about this , how many " unofficial " meetings, talks and phone conversations have taken place about this project .It would be enligthening to see everyone involved in this projects e-mails , phone logs and correspondense

  13. Straight Talk
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    Straight Talk - February 28, 2012 2:13 pm
    54954.3. (a) Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body's consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body...
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