This week, March 14 to March 21, is proclaimed Sunshine Week in California. Not referring to the abundant sunshine that we enjoy here, but rather the term is used to shine a light on political processes and to foster transparency in all corners of government.
Last week, March 7 to March 14 was Arbor Week in California. Cities have to apply and pass muster with the National Arbor Day Foundation to be recognized as a Tree City. There are 124 Tree Cities in this state — Encinitas is not one of them.
There is a nexus between these two weeks, coming one after the other, that reflects the deficit in the lack of processes practiced in Encinitas city government.
In the middle of Arbor Week, irate Encinitas residents were protesting in a City Council meeting because staff members, ignoring process and public concerns, cut down 11 young healthy trees in the Orpheus Neighborhood Park so that a few condo owners could improve their ocean view. I don’t know how the Arbor Foundation will view this city’s action, but I doubt that it will sit well with an organization whose purpose is maintaining a healthy urban forest.
The Encinitas Environmental Commission has developed an Urban Forest Policy and aspires to be designated a Tree City. The policy was presented at the March 18 City Council meeting. Now it goes to the staff to write up the procedures for operation. Will this policy prevent an Orpheus Park incident from happening again? Some public process needs to be assured and built-in to the procedures. The policy and the procedures need to return to the Environmental Commission and City Council for review and a second public hearing.
The Brown Act is our Sunshine Law in California, which assures us of accountability and transparency in government. The Freedom of Information Act, Federal Advisory Committee Act and the Sunshine Act are the federal laws granting us access to public records and open meetings.
When Brown Act violations occur, it does not bode well for city governments. While the trees in Orpheus Park were being cut down, the three majority council members engaged in a serial e-mail exchange among themselves on this issue. With more than two members discussing an issue, it constitutes a collective concurrence outside the purview of the public, a Brown Act violation.
Closed sessions are meetings where all City Council members meet to discuss: a) possible or real lawsuits/legal action; b) salaries/pay and benefits for staff; c) purchase of property for parks, city projects, etc., without the public in attendance.
Closed sessions are required to be noticed with an agenda.
In Encinitas, the way in which Closed Sessions are being noticed to the public constitutes a Brown Act violation. Currently all Closed Sessions are being noticed as a “Special Meeting,” which means the city is only required to give 24 hours notice versus the 72 hours notice normally required for regular agendas. Result: It doesn’t give the public adequate notification should they want to speak to any issue listed. It shows yet another attempt to circumvent the public process.
Marco Gonzales, co-founder of the Coast Law Group and an Encinitas resident, spoke before the council at the March 11 meeting: “The integrity of your entire government structure is called into question — not just the underhandedness, it is about avoiding process and not having process. We have a systemic problem here in the city with regards to governance. It has led to a lack of confidence of your constituency. It is not hard to govern well, just set the rules and follow them.”
Sheila S. Cameron is an Encinitas resident and former mayor of Encinitas.