Not long after the Bakersfield City Council voted to kill popular Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing for homeowners last summer, we asked the City to address an apparent violation of California’s state law banning secret meetings about public policy decisions — the Ralph M. Brown Act’s ban on serial meetings. But Bakersfield refused.
And when we asked for public records of city council members’ communications with each other and realtor lobbyists regarding PACE, Bakersfield hired the outside legal firm of Clifford & Brown to fight public access to information about the policy decision.
Bakersfield’s refusal to “cure and correct” its apparent violation of the Brown Act left us no other choice than to file a public interest lawsuit to enforce the public’s right to know. Since we filed the lawsuit, the City has dragged its feet on records requests for months and failed to provide sworn statements from council members about whether they searched their “private” phones for records of their dealings with lobbyists about the PACE program.
Unnecesary Expenditure of Taxpayer Funds
As of Feb. 20, 2017, according to a letter we received from City Attorney Virginia Gennaro, Bakersfield had spent $12,536 of taxpayer money on outside legal bills to block public access to information about how city council members killed PACE. Based on our research of public listings of Bakersfield city employee salaries, thousands more in taxpayer dollars have likely been spent paying Gennaro and her staff as well. The meter is still running, and we intend to determine the full amount of what has been spent.
Even the limited records we’ve received so far indicate that the city may have violated the state’s ban on secret, “serial” meetings. The California legislature considers serial meetings to be a violation of the public trust. Here’s an excerpt from the statute:
Bakersfield City Council members could have saved taxpayers thousands of dollars in lawyers and staff costs if they had just agreed to “cure and correct” their alleged Brown Act violation and hold a full public revote on the PACE program last year. Instead, council members have decided to fight our efforts to shed light on their behind-the-scenes meetings with lobbyists, some of which were probably orchestrated on their personal cell phones.
The California Supreme Court ruled (San Jose case) that public business conducted by elected officials on their personal devices must be made public. But the city’s lawyers are saying that council members’ “privacy” means they don’t have to search for whatever public records may exist on the council members’ “private” phones.
The Bakersfield City Council is also facing a separate lawsuit by first amendment advocates who argue that the city violated the Brown Act when it held closed door meetings on municipal revenue policies and budget matters.
The public deserves a full accounting of whatever dealings elected officials in Bakersfield have had with powerful Realtor lobbyists to stop a popular homeowner financing program.
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.
You Might Want to Read: