No Foul for Closed Meeting in Water District

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A Southern California water district did not violate open-government law when it held a closed session to discuss suing its public water wholesaler, a state appeals court affirmed Wednesday.
     The three-judge panel of the Second Appellate District upheld a trial court’s ruling that the Newhall County Water District did not violate the state’s Brown Act mandating open meetings when it held a closed session in March 2013 to discuss litigation against plaintiff Castaic Lake Water Agency.
     Passed by the California Legislature in 1953, the Brown Act addressed mounting concern at the time that local elected officials were holding informal, undisclosed meetings to avoid public scrutiny of their decisions.
     The act – originally a 686-word statute – applies only to city and county government agencies, boards and councils in California. The comparable Bagley-Keene Act mandates open meetings for state agencies.
     Writing for the panel, Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon ruled Newhall County included sufficient information in its public notice and gave a heads-up to residents regarding the likelihood of suing the water supply wholesaler.
     “The given notice plainly advised the members of the public that on March 14, 2013, the Newhall Board would be meeting with its legal counsel, in closed session, to discuss potential litigation in two cases,” Edmon wrote.
     Newhall County sued CLWA in 2013 over a decision to hike fees on its customers. The water retailer charged Newhall and others a fixed rate for imported water regardless of the amount of water it used.
     In 2014, a superior court judge ordered CLWA to remove the “special tax” and refund Newhall and its customers $61,000. In response, the retailer took aim at the origin of Newhall County’s lawsuit and questioned the legality of the March 2013 closed meeting.
     CLWA claimed the meeting violated the Brown Act because Newhall failed to properly list the agenda and didn’t allow CLWA a chance for public comment.
     “[Newhall’s] creative yet illogical attempt to ratify actions taken in violation of the Brown Act is contrary to public policy and eviscerates the purpose and enforceability of the Brown Act,” CLWA argued in its appeal.
     Edmon disagreed that the meeting violated the Brown Act, finding that Newhall was transparent and even held a second open meeting that welcomed public comment.
     “Castaic’s argument is hypertechnical and elevates form over substance,” Edmon wrote in a June 26 ruling that was released publicly Wednesday.
     According to its website, the wholesaler supplies water to 280,000 customers in four different districts in Southern California, including Newhall and Los Angeles County Waterworks District #36.
     Last week, CLWA General Manager Dan Masnada announced he’s retiring from the agency after 12 years and that the board is searching for his replacement.
     Attorneys for CLWA declined to comment on the ruling.

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