Court rules Bakersfield violated California open meeting law

January 10, 2020 GMT

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (AP) — A judge has ruled that several Bakersfield City Council sessions held behind closed doors in 2017 violated California’s open meeting law.

The closed sessions involved discussions of city finances that led to a sales tax increase, the Bakersfield Californian reported.

Kern County Superior Court Judge Stephen Schuett issued the ruling Wednesday in a lawsuit by the nonprofit advocacy organizations First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware.

The city attorney’s office said no one was available Thursday to comment on the ruling, the newspaper reported.

The ruling was a “complete victory,” the First Amendment Coalition said Friday.

“The City Council shut the public out of crucial discussions on exactly the kinds of topics California law requires be discussed in full public view,” coalition executive director David Snyder said in a statement.

California’s Ralph M. Brown Act allows meetings of legislative bodies to be closed to the public only in limited circumstances.

The city claimed that the three closed sessions involved legal advice concerning pending litigation, an exception under the law.

The judge ruled, however, that financial information disclosed at the meetings was clearly outside the scope of the open meeting law.

“To permit the City Council to use this exception as a subterfuge to allow the discussion of the city’s critical budget issues, the potential solutions to those issues, impacts on city revenues, and potential staff layoffs and curtailing of services would allow the exception created by (the Brown Act) to swallow the rule,” Schuett wrote.

The judge ordered the city to record all closed sessions for one year because of the potential for future violations.

The city also was ordered to give the plaintiffs documents related to their complaint and to pay their attorneys’ fees.