Amador City

Summary

Following two citizens’ complaints, the Grand Jury looked into allegations of abuse of power by city council members. The allegation claimed that a City Council member repeatedly wrote letters to government agencies about a citizen and activities occurring on the citizen’s property. The citizen claimed that the council member acted unilaterally without City Council knowledge and used city stationery to carry on a personal vendetta against him and other citizens.

The Grand Jury found that on one occasion the City Council failed to provide notice of a pending council meeting within the timeframe required by the Brown Act. The Grand Jury could find no evidence of abuse of power but did find the City Council’s procedures contrary to the concept of open government.

Findings

  1. The City Council failed to give sufficient notice of "special emergency" meeting as required by the Brown Act but cancelled the meeting before conducting any business.
  2. Individually council members write letters regarding city business. The subject or content of these letters is not part of the City Council meetings.
  3. One council member wrote letters on city stationery complaining about a citizen’s activities on the citizen’s property. There has been a long standing feud between the council member and the citizen.
  4. One council member admitted writing a letter of complaint on city stationery to a neighbor when the issue involved the council member’s own property.
  5. No references to letters written by council members on city business appear on agendas or minutes of City Council meetings.

    Letters written by council members are filed in the city’s official files.

  6. The Council cancelled a recent emergency meeting following a citizen’s public complaint that the meeting date and time had not been printed in the newspaper within the timeframe required by the Brown Act.

Conclusions

  1. The City Council did not violate the Brown Act.
  2. City Council members with conflicts of interest or potential conflicts of interest do not routinely refer those matters to other council members. This results in the appearance of impropriety and abuse of power.
  3. The city’s procedure allowing individual council members to write official letters and then never discuss the purpose or content of the letters in open meetings does not violate the Brown Act. However, this procedure does prevent the citizens of the city from knowing about the activities and actions of its officials. This is contrary to the concept of an open government and an informed public.

Recommendations

  1. Comply with all provisions of the Brown Act. Review Brown Act provisions relating to serial meetings and the preamble’s reference to open meetings.
  2. Declare a conflict of interest when a council member serving on a committee has personal conflicts with citizens or neighbors and refer the matter to another member to handle.
  3. Disclose in public meetings the subject of all correspondence written by council members serving on committees or as a council unless the closed session provisions of the Brown Act protect the correspondence.
  4. Send a courtesy copy of letters to individuals who are the subject of official letters.
  5. Adopt an ordinance requiring all letters written on city stationery be placed in a correspondence file and made available for public review.

Comment Requirements

The Grand Jury requests that the Mayor respond within 90 days from the official filing date of this report as required by Penal Code 933(c).

Authority to Investigate

Penal Code Section 925(a) provides that the Grand Jury may look into the misconduct of public officers and examine the books and records of any city. Because of its deliberations and a vote of at least twelve members as required by Penal Code Section 916 to conduct this investigation, the Grand Jury determined the complaints warranted investigation.

Method of Review

Members of the Grand Jury conducted interviews with the following people:

Grand Jury members also reviewed:

Background

The Grand Jury received two complaints. One complaint accused a City Council member of a campaign of harassment and intimidation against the citizen. The other complaint raised similar issues about the specific council member and the council at large. In addition, one complaint alleged violations of the Brown Act by the City Council.

Based on interviews and review of documents, the Grand Jury determined that there was a long-standing conflict between a citizen and a council member. This conflict began before the council member’s election to office.

Part of the supporting documentation was a letter written by the council member to the Amador County Water Agency asking for a survey of runoff from the citizen’s property into the city’s sewer treatment plant. The complaint alleged that the council member lived next door and objected to the way the citizen watered the grass. The citizen contended that this letter was a form of harassment.

The Grand Jury contacted the Water Agency and confirmed that the agency received a letter from the City Council member. In response to the letter, the Water Agency sent two employees to determine the source of the excess water (runoff) draining into the sewer treatment plant. The Water Agency determined that the runoff did not originate from the citizen’s property. This information was reported to the council member in writing.

Shortly thereafter, the council member wrote to a director of the Water Agency. In part, this second letter complained about the findings of the Water Agency and indicated poor work by the agency. The Grand Jury felt this second letter lent credence to the citizen’s allegation of harassment.

The Grand Jury looked for references to the runoff issue in agendas and minutes of Council meetings. None were found. The Grand Jury interviewed members of the City Council regarding the way the city handled official correspondence. It found the City Council members serve on small standing committees. Committee members write letters as needed or desired. The subject or content of the letter is not necessarily discussed at the council meetings. However, council members do file their letters in the city’s correspondence file. In the case of the runoff, the citizen learned about the runoff issue from the Water Agency employees making the survey.

Other examples of official letters written by council members having potential conflicts of interest or personal agendas surfaced during the investigation. The Grand Jury felt the process of writing letters without discussing the content or intent in open meetings is poor practice. At the very least, this process denied citizens interested in their city government the opportunity to comment on matters affecting them. At the very worst, hidden from the public the process is open to abuse by individual City Council members. When the subject of official correspondence is not part of public meetings, the impression is that council members discuss these issues in private. The Grand Jury found no evidence that this occurs. However, it is understandable why citizens whose property or activities are subjects of the correspondence might think so.

The City Council called an emergency meeting to discuss the Seaton Mine. A procedural protest was made at the start of the meeting. The citizen pointed out the city’s failure to print the meeting date, time, and place in the local newspaper as required by the Brown Act. The City Council cancelled the meeting without conducting any city business.

Supplementary Information

The Brown Act, Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies (Attorney General’s Office, Public Inquiry Unit, 1994)

The Brown Act, 1997 Supplement, California Attorney General’s Office, State of California, 1997

Amador City’s correspondence file

City Council Minutes

Council meeting minutes

City Ordinances