Judge Denies City’s Motion to Have Brown Act Case Thrown Out

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City Manager Jim Thorsen explains map renderings of Bluffs Park to town hall and walk-through attendees as Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal looks on.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied a motion by the City of Malibu last week to have an ongoing lawsuit over alleged Brown Act violations thrown out.

The Malibu Township Council, represented by attorney Frank Angel, filed suit back in March alleging city officials violated the Ralph M. Brown Act by secretly negotiating a proposal to swap 532 acres of city-owned Charmlee Wilderness Park in western Malibu in exchange for 83 acres of Malibu Bluffs Park controlled by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC).

In an 11-page ruling, Judge James Chalfant said he wanted to hear further evidence from Angel, who argues that a December briefing over a proposed park swap informed a majority of the City Council that Mayor Joan House and Councilman Lou La Monte favored the swap. Furthermore, Chalfant said a Dec. 24 email sent from Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal to House and La Monte could be interpreted as showing Rosenthal’s “favorable” opinion of the proposal.

Under the Brown Act, it is illegal for a majority of a governing body to deliberate or hold secret meetings without public knowledge. In this case, the plaintiffs allege a majority of the five-member City Council knew of and favored the proposal.

City Attorney Christi Hogin had moved to get the case dismissed summarily, or without an evidentiary hearing.

“Contrary to the city’s argument, this email, made after negotiations with SMMC’s full legal team, and after Rosenthal saw the City Attorney’s report on the negotiations, can be construed as stating her favorable position on the swap. As three councilpersons supported the swap, this can be construed as a collective decision by the majority of Councilpersons,” Chalfant wrote.

Angel hailed Chalfant’s decision.

“The court made clear that the Brown Act requires more than simply notice of a meeting and the opportunity for the public to be heard; it requires local elected officials to discuss, deliberate and vote in the open on agenda items,” Angel said in a release. “They can’t split fact-finding, discussion or deliberation between private and public meetings.”

Several members of MTC have spoken out against the swap at past City Council meetings, citing potential wildfire risks and lack of trust in the SMMC. Supporters of the swap believe obtaining Bluffs Park would provide space for more athletic and recreational fields, which many believe Malibu lacks.

Hogin remained skeptical of MTC’s chances of winning the suit, arguing that the group is trying to prevent the local government from doing its job.

“The thing about this lawsuit is it is clearly an effort by the plaintiff to try and prevent the city from considering the land swap, that’s really what this is about,” Hogin said Friday. “So we’re just going to manage the defense as best we can.”

A trial is expected to get underway in mid-2014, according to Angel.

Despite the ongoing lawsuit, the City Council next Tuesday is set to take up further discussion of the proposed swap for the first time since MTC brought on the charges.