Mistakes may have been made, but they weren’t bad enough to warrant any punishment, other than time wasted. That seems to be the result of a lawsuit that was settled this week between the City of Santa Barbara and Ampersand Publishing, the parent company of the Santa Barbara News-Press that’s owned by Wendy McCaw.
The lawsuit was filed by Ampersand over the city’s alleged violations of the Brown Act, the law that bans government decision-making bodies from holding secret meetings or discussing policy matters outside the purview of the public. Specifically, the violations took place during a November 2007 meeting of the Transportation and Circulation Committee. The volunteer members were casually speaking about the redesign of De la Guerra Plaza, a project not listed on that month’s agenda.
The plaza redesign has been vehemently attacked by the News-Press columnist Travis Armstrong in his notoriously vicious scribes against City Hall, and the lawsuit was filed after some of those earlier article. The daily paper’s office is located just a few dozen yards from City Hall on the plaza. Critics of Armstrong, who also edits the News-Press opinions section, claim that he refuses to print any opinions counter to his own, including support for a plaza remodel.
In a press release issued by City Hall on Tuesday, October 28, city attorney Steve Wiley said it was clear that the committee discussion was “inadvertent and innocent.” But he realized that, technically, a judge could have found the city in violation, even if no committee decision was made. Because of the money it would have taken to vigorously fight the lawsuit any further, the city decided to settle, explained Wiley. He also admitted in the press release that these violations do “sometimes unintentionally occur,” in part because the committee members comprising the more than 30 civic boards are volunteers strictly serving in advisory roles.
Although the city settled, there are no damages being paid, and each side has agreed to pay for their own attorney and court fees.
An email to Ampersand attorney Barry Cappello and a follow-up call to city attorney Steve Wiley were not immediately returned.
UPDATE: Cappello responded on Wednesday morning with this comment: “The City speaks with a ‘forked tongue’ in its release. There is no such thing as a technical violation of the Brown Act. Secret meeting laws need to be strictly adhered to. The News-Press was not about to allow the City to get away with this. The City wasted the public’s money by fighting this for quite some time until the court finally ruled against them. Their ‘press release’ that they settled to save money is laughable. The News-Press intends to monitor all governmental agencies of interest to insure they keep the public fully informed ‘before’ they act, not after as the case in this violation. All local members of the press need to be more vigilant, understand the Brown Act, and hold the governmental officials accountable for the ‘public’s right to know.’”