The PAT – An open or shut case?
Question of public access for SDC technical group in a murky area of Brown Act
Teri Shore is regional director of the North Bay Greenbelt Alliance. She has a strong interest in the future of the state-owned Sonoma Developmental Center’s (SDC) 945 acres of open space and developed lands. She was not happy to be told that the meetings of the Public Advisory Team (PAT) are not open to the public.
A large part of determining SDC’s future includes developing a Specific Plan for what to do with it, a plan that will be acceptable to the State of California before it relinquishes ownership to various parks or other entities.
The 15 PAT members bring a variety of professional expertise, including development, housing, nonprofits, historical perspectives and local community activism. All of them live within two miles of the SDC.
Team members are tasked with providing expert information to staff as well as personally reaching out the community to explore issues that arise.
“Its name alone indicates it should be public,” Shore said. “It seems straightforward to me. It’s consistent with every other county agency that has public advisory teams, community, technical, advisory committees; they are all open to the public, noticed with agendas and minutes. So why would there be a need for anything different, especially with such an important piece of property?”
“We wanted to be sure that staff has a full understanding of background,” Permit Sonoma’s Milan Nevajda explained concerning the reasons for not making the meetings public. “The PAT is part of the advisory council to staff. It does not have any decision-making authority; no final approval or denial on things that are brought forward.”
Nevajda emphasized that there are and will be many opportunities for public access to the planning process during the two-year time frame for developing the Specific Plan. He is deputy director of Permit Sonoma, and directly oversees most county interactions concerning the future of the SDC.
Vicki Hill is not concerned with the open/closed issue. She is a Glen Ellen resident who has an extensive background in land use issues, as well as being a member of the Glen Ellen Forum, a local group that has intense interest in what happens to the extensive neighboring property.
“My understanding is that we, as ambassadors to the community, are going to be reviewing materials, administrative reports that are not ready to be circulated,” she said. “We will review administrative drafts to insure that they don’t make some glaring error about the community or facts. Then they go to the public as draft documents for review.
“Secondly, it becomes really unwieldy to become open to the public. We want to have very frank discussions.”
Nick Brown agrees. He is also a team member, a Glen Ellen resident, officer of the Glen Ellen Forum, and is Executive Director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society.
“I think that the county wants us to be able to maneuver and dialog in a safe space where we feel that we can really hammer things out, where we don’t necessarily have to be polite with one anther and to move forward. There’s a lot involved with working out different ideas, not all of which will be implemented, without everything being transmitted to the press. It (privacy) keeps the anxiety down while we are working. Once we actually figure out and finalize plans, then our conclusions will be made public; but, until our conclusions are reached, we don’t want to go with half completed information. That is unhelpful.”
The legal issue of open meetings isn’t so straightforward, after all. The Brown Act – California’s open meeting law – isn’t specific about holding open meetings for subgroups of government bodies that don’t make decisions or determine policy.
The Brown Act does specifically mention advisory bodies, but says they are only covered if “a legislative body delegates some of its (specific) functions, or if it appoints a voting member to it.” That does not seem to be the case with the PAT.
Other legal opinions come to different conclusions.
Alegría De La Cruz of Sonoma County Counsel’s office wrote on March 29, 2019 (with regard to a general, not specific question): “Whenever a Brown Act body takes action to create a committee, commission, task force – even if it is only temporary and advisory – the new commission must comply with the notice and open meeting requirements of the Brown Act.”
The League of California Cities, however, posits that, “Meetings of temporary advisory committees – as distinguished from standing committees – made up solely of less than a quorum of a legislative body are not subject to the Brown Act.”
The League concluded that, “The law, on the one hand, recognizes the need of individual local officials to meet and discuss matters with their constituents. On the other hand, it requires – with certain specific exceptions to protect the community and preserve individual rights – that the decision-making process be public. Sometimes the boundary between the two is not easy to draw.”
Shore thinks that the alternative, open meetings that will be held to discuss the ongoing studies of what to do with the SDC property, will not be enough.
“The public process will consist of the usual workshops at round tables where people take notes, but no one is allowed to make any presentation in detail,” Shore included in a list of reasons for not closing PAT meetings. “Or people will have up to three minutes to talk at a public hearing. Or there may be smaller ‘stakeholder’ groups that are narrow to invitees.”
Shore aired her opinion at the January 30 Planning Agency meeting, a monthly convocation of all members of the county’s various planning agencies, including the Planning Commission, to discuss the overall state of Permit Sonoma (which oversees the SDC planning process). She found several commissioners were unaware of the closed status of the PAT meetings, and outlined 10 reasons in support of open meetings.
Planning Commissioner Paula Cook was intrigued enough to have a last-minute discussion item included on the Planning Commission’s Feb. 6 agenda and invited Nevajda to explain the reasons for having closed meetings. Late agenda additions may be made for informational discussions where there are no decisions to be made.
After outlining the entire Specific Plan process and the many opportunities for public engagement along the way, Commissioner Cook said, “I agendized it because a person at the Planning Agency hearing made a point that the meeting was closed,” she said. “I wanted to know why is that. One question asked of counsel was answered in that this is done in a variety of ways, as needed, for technical expertise to get us through the public process. I think you have explained that quite thoroughly.
“I don’t see any need for further information,” she concluded.