ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council unanimously rejected a complaint filed by a local resident alleging that City Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear and Lisa Shaffer violated state open meeting laws, which several residents decried as politically motivated.
The complaint, filed earlier this month by former traffic and public safety commissioner David Hutchinson, alleged several violations of the Brown Act by Shaffer and Blakespear over the course of three years.
The most recent alleged offense, according to Hutchinson’s complaint, occurred in September, in which he said that Blakespear and Shaffer discussed a proposed lease agreement with the Encinitas Arts Culture and Ecology Alliance shortly after Shaffer had exited a subcommittee meeting with Tony Kranz on the subject.
Mayor Kristin Gaspar, who requested the item be placed on the agenda, claimed the conversation occurred near her office and said she believed it violated the Act.
Both Shaffer and Blakespear have called the conversation non-substantive and called the allegations spurious and drummed up by supporters of Gaspar’s husband, Paul, who is running against Blakespear for mayor.
Hutchinson has contributed to Paul Gaspar’s campaign and has documented ties to Gaspar supporters, including New Encinitas Network founder Mike Andreen and former City Councilman Jerome Stocks.
In a heated and visibly emotional discussion at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, supporters of Blakespear and Shaffer, including former City Councilwoman Teresa Barth, criticized Gaspar for having the item placed on the agenda on the eve of the election, calling the allegations baseless.
“To say that an off-the-cuff remark is a violation of the Brown Act would be laughable and show a lack of understanding of the Brown Act by the mayor had she not done it purposely for the sole purpose of defaming and demeaning her two female colleagues,” Barth said in an emotionally charged statement. “Blindsiding colleagues from the dais represents an arrogant abuse of power.”
One speaker, Ralph Thielicke, said that he believed the accusations were serious and needed to be investigated by an impartial third party.
“Do we have an elected city council that is open, honest and transparent or do we have a government of backdoor deals?” Thielicke said. “This is the question that needs to be cleared up so our residents are confident in the actions of our city council.”
Attorney Marco Gonzalez, whose Coast Law Group firm is affiliated with Californians Aware also spoke at the meeting, sayinh that his firm had been involved with a number of open-meeting violation claims. These, he said, either fell out of the statute of limitations or, in the case of the serial meeting claim, had no remedy because the council has yet to vote on a lease agreement.
Gonzalez said that he believed that these accusations are typically used by council minorities to “push back on their inability to get what they want done.”
“I think letters like this, council minorities that take advantage of the Brown Act, to push a political agenda belittles the bigger picture. We strive for good governance, open government, transparency,” Gonzalez said.
“We are all going to get a chance to stand up and talk about what we like, what we don’t like (regarding the lease)… that it is highway robbery, a public giveaway…in a public forum and the majority will vote on something, that is still going to happen,” Gonzalez continued. “I don’t understand why we are talking about an allegation that really has no remedy.
“To take the Brown Act and embody it in this forum really belittles what we stand for,” Gonzalez said.
Gaspar, in her remarks, re-emphasized that she felt that a Brown Act violation had occurred and said she hoped that Shaffer and Blakespear would apologize.
“It was more than a passing comment,” she said. “It was a five-minute conversation.”
Shaffer, however, said that she believed the item should have never been on the agenda, and requested that a memo penned by City Attorney Glenn Sabine be released to the public that she said effectively there was no violation.
Sabine told the council that they would have to schedule a future agenda item to vote on releasing the memo, which is bound by attorney-client privilege.
Councilman Mark Muir, who voted with Gaspar two weeks ago to bring the item back to the council after the allegations emerged during a special council meeting, said Wednesday that he didn’t believe the allegations had merit and that he was ready to move on as well.
Blakespear, who has defended her and Shaffer’s conversation in her newsletter to supporters, did not speak on the item.