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.