Lawsuit looms after City Council spurns Brown Act violation allegations

It’s looking like the City of Malibu can add another lawsuit to its ledger.

An attorney for civic group Malibu Township Council (MTC) vowed to recommend legal action against the city after the City Council on Monday refused to acknowledge allegations by MTC that council members violated state open meeting laws over a controversial park swap.

After little discussion, the City Council voted 4-0 to send a letter to Frank Angel declining a “cure and correct” request. Angel, a Malibu resident and attorney for MTC, alleges a majority of Malibu City Council members knew details of a proposed parkland swap before information was released to the public and therefore violated the Ralph M. Brown Act.

The Brown Act guarantees the public’s access to government meetings and prohibits secret meetings of government bodies.

“The council thinks this is going to go away, but it’s not,” Angel said.

The attorney plans on recommending the MTC pursue a lawsuit against the city over its refusal to suspend all negotiations relating to a possible trade of citycontrolled Charmlee Park for Bluffs Park, which is controlled by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC).

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Once Angel officially receives the signed response letter from the city, he has 15 days to file a lawsuit.

On Jan. 14 the City Council voted to explore the trade with SMMC in the hopes of possibly acquiring more developable acreage at Bluffs that would allow numerous ball fields and recreational sites to be built.

MTC also asked the city to make all “swap-related public records, including emails and text messages” available to the public.

The council on Monday, however, sided with City Attorney Christi Hogin, who in a staff report called the allegations absurd.

“MTC claims that a majority of council members cannot ‘know facts’ about an item before it is discussed at an open and public meeting. However, the Brown Act prohibits council members from discussing items that are not posted on the agenda of the meeting,” Hogin wrote. “Because the council members must receive the agenda in advance, all council members will have ‘acquired information’ about agenda items before they are discussed at meetings.”

Councilman John Sibert on Monday continued denying any wrongdoing on the council’s part.

“The mere idea that finding out that something is being discussed [by other council members] is…ludicrous,” Councilman John Sibert said Monday.

Mayor Lou La Monte and Mayor Pro Tem Joan House first met with SMMC Executive Director Joe Edmiston in early December for lunch to discuss the idea of swapping 532-acre Charmlee Wilderness Park for the Conservancy’s 83 acres of Malibu Bluffs Park, as a possible way of obtaining more land for athletic fields.

In a Dec. 21 email to the SMMC board of directors that later became public, Edmiston wrote that he came away from the lunch with “the framework for a comprehensive solution to many of the issues between Malibu and the SMMC.” Many have said this proves a deal was already in place between the city and the Conservancy.

MTC also charges that Sibert knew about the meeting between La Monte, Mayor Pro Tem Joan House and SMMC Director Joe Edmiston before Hogin released a Dec. 26 staff report. As proof of a Brown Act violation, Angel cites a comment made by Sibert at the Jan. 14 meeting, in which he stated, “I did find out before Christmas that there was a meeting to discuss the swap.”

Angel maintains that Hogin was precluded under the Brown Act from conveying facts or comments that would disclose other council members’ position. In finding out La Monte and House had met with Edmiston to discuss the park trade, Angel believes Sibert knew the course of action La Monte and House favored before a public discussion was held.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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