‘Welcoming City’ Vote Violated Brown Act, Citizens Say

California State Board of Trade, 1897. (Retrieved from the Open Collections Program at Harvard University)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A government oversight group claims in a lawsuit filed this week that the mayor of a San Diego County city engaged in a “bait and switch” over a City Council vote to designate the city “welcoming” to all – including immigrants.

San Diegans for Open Government and Chris Shilling sued the city of National City on Tuesday in San Diego Superior Court along with Mayor Ron Morrison and City Council members Albert Mendivil and Jerry Cano, claiming Brown Act violations related to a contentious Feb. 7 City Council meeting and vote.

The meeting came after the City Council, at the urging of nonprofit Alliance San Diego, agreed last December to have city staff prepare a resolution in support of creating a “welcoming community,” according to the 9-page lawsuit.

National City’s resolution echoed similar moves by local governments across California and the nation to clarify their positions on immigration in light of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and his campaign promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and ramp up deportations of undocumented immigrants.

The term “welcoming city” is seen as a less politically charged alternative than adopting a “sanctuary city” designation.

When the time came for the City Council to vote on whether to adopt the resolution, the Feb. 7 meeting was packed with members of the public commenting about whether the city should designate itself as “welcoming” to all residents, regardless of immigration status.

Councilwoman Alejandra Sotelo-Solis made a motion to adopt the “Welcoming City Resolution” as written in the staff proposal, a move which was seconded by Councilwoman Mona Rios.

According to the lawsuit, however, before the City Council could vote on the resolution Mayor Morrison used “bait and switch” to offer an alternative resolution which removed all references to welcoming everyone to the city regardless of immigration status.

San Diegans for Open Government says the substitute resolution was not made available for the public to view and comment on before the vote, and that Sotelo-Solis and Rios had never seen the resolution.

The mayor’s resolution was ultimately the one that the City Council voted to adopt, with Sotelo-Solis and Rios voting against.

At the following City Council meeting on Feb. 21, Sotelo-Solis and Rios raised a motion to investigate potential Brown Act violations related to the lightning-fast vote to approve Morrison’s last minute substitute resolution.

The Brown Act is a California law which requires government business by public officials to be done in public. The law requires actions by “public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in the state” be “taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

Public officials are not allowed to conduct private meetings to develop a consensus on a policy or decision they later vote on publicly, according to the law.

The motion to investigate was struck down when Morrison, Mendivil and Cano voted against it.

Just three days later, the government oversight group and Shilling submitted a Public Records Act request for all documents, emails and communications related to the Feb. 7 vote and Feb. 21 meeting where the motion to initiate an investigation into potential Brown Act violations was struck down.

The organization seeks a judgment finding the city officials violated the Brown Act and asks the court to strike down the Mayor’s resolution approved at the Feb. 7 meeting. It also asks for a mandate requiring National City officials to comply with the public records request.

San Diegans for Open Government attorney Livia Borak said in a phone interview her clients have received some documents through their records request and expect to receive more in coming days, but that her clients believe the city’s response has been “inadequate.”

She said her clients believe there are Brown Act violations related to the vote because one of the council members who had originally supported the first resolution flip-flopped and voted in favor for the mayor’s substitute version. It’s unlikely that could have happened unless Morrison, Mendivil and Cano had planned to do so before the Feb. 7 meeting, Borak said.

“We’re still waiting to see how the substitute resolution was formulated and how the mayor came to his final resolution,” Borak said.

“We have not received any documents related to that draft resolution thus far, so it looks like it appeared out of thin air. It is suspicious there’s not one paper trail of how the mayor came up with the draft resolution and how it was written.”

City officials, including Mayor Morrison, did not respond to email and phone requests for comment.

%d bloggers like this: