Montecito Journal Editor, Public Officials Get a Lesson in the Brown Act

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By Melinda Burns

The lawyer for the Montecito Sanitary District has told board members they are violating the state Brown Act and “half a dozen conflict of interest rules” by engaging in group emails with Bob Hazard, a columnist for the Montecito Journal and a major campaign contributor to elected officials serving on both the water and sanitary district boards.

“You need to be very careful,” Janet McGinnis, the sanitary district legal counsel, said at a March 14 meeting of the board. “I’m trying to protect you from missteps.”

Hazard, an associate editor of the Journal, resident and past president of the Birnam Wood Golf Club on East Valley Road, and persistent gadfly at public board meetings, contributed $5,000 to the winning slate of two water board candidates in 2016 and another $5,000 to the winning slate of three candidates for the water board and two for the sanitary board in 2018 – part of a $200,000 treasure chest bankrolling the campaigns – and he wielded his Journal columns to rally the community behind them.

Bob Hazard (courtesy of hotelbusiness.com)

Hazard wants the water and sanitary districts to develop recycled wastewater for the golf greens at Birnam Wood, one of Montecito’s largest water users. He has long advocated for consolidating the two districts into one.

At the March 14 meeting, McGinnis raised concerns about a March 12 group email that Hazard had addressed to sanitary district board President Tom Bollay and cc’d to the other nine board members at both the sanitary and water districts, plus the general managers, with a draft of one of his Journal editorials attached.

In his email, Hazard thanked Bollay for his suggested edits “along with similar suggestions from half a dozen others.”

McGinnis told the board that Hazard’s email constituted a “non-public, private meeting in violation of the entire Brown Act and a half dozen conflict of interest rules.” The Brown Act requires public officials to make decisions based on materials in the public record, and, unlike Hazard, who is not a public official, they can be sued if they break the rules by engaging in “daisy-chain communications” or “serial meetings,” McGinnis said.

“Do not respond if you get something like this,” she told the board. “… Mr. Hazard is seeking input for his article. The inference is that his article reflects the deliberation process of any number of you, potentially the majority …”

“If someone tells you what a fellow board member thinks, stop them,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis said she was placing the email in the public record “to make clear that it was not invited,” and she asked Hazard in the future not to send group emails to board members.

“I don’t want to have to void any board decisions,” she said.

Hazard told McGinnis that he regularly sent his draft editorials to the Santa Barbara City Council and county Board of Supervisors, asking for comments.

“It’s a fair way to get a better article,” he said, adding that he had made 14 changes to the editorial (it appeared in the Journal’s March 14 to 21 issue) based on changes suggested by the email recipients.

“I say that’s not a violation of the Brown Act,” Hazard said. “I’m amazed that this becomes a problem.”

McGinnis told the board, “I am a retired city attorney. He is not your legal counsel.  I assure you, the city does not allow daisy-chain communications.”

“You are not allowed, outside of the public-noticed, agendized meeting, to talk about each other’s decisions, opinions, points of view,” McGinnis said. “You no longer get to have such discussions in private … The public has the right to know your deliberative process.”


Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.

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Concerned4Calif Apr 18, 2019 08:10 AM
Montecito Journal Editor, Public Officials Get a Lesson in the Brown Act

Its probably good legal advice but I think board members can inform themselves on public opinion and input without breaking the law. Hazard's idea to recycle water and consolidating districts sound like valid discussions on sound policy that should be shared and at the right time and place, discussed. Completely within "Freedom of Speech" First Amendment.

yacht rocked Apr 17, 2019 04:13 PM
Montecito Journal Editor, Public Officials Get a Lesson in the Brown Act

What really torqed me off was the MJ editor saying he and his Montecito community "didn't give a fig" about furloughed government employees during the shutdown since government is basically useless to Montecito's exclusive enclave of wealthy denizens. Bob Hazard is another one that always complains about government in the MJ rag, but as soon as he floats ideas like undergrounding all of Montecito's power and phone wires or putting nets across creeks, he wants government to pay for it because Montecito folks pay so much in taxes. Good grief.

a-1558646214 Apr 17, 2019 02:43 PM
Montecito Journal Editor, Public Officials Get a Lesson in the Brown Act

Oh Melinda you are really sliding in your reporting. There was no $200,000 campaign. Go pull the FPPC forms. It's not a Brown Act violation for a newspaper editorial writer to ask for comments before his column is published. It would have been if the board members group emailed each other back in their response, and it doesn't sound like this happened.

a-1558646214 Apr 17, 2019 10:50 AM
Montecito Journal Editor, Public Officials Get a Lesson in the Brown Act

Interesting. I don't really agree that this violates the Brown Act, to me it sounds like decisions were not being made in these emails, more like they were confirming the article's accuracy? Melinda, why not include the emails since they were made part of the public record?

SantaBarbaraObserver Apr 17, 2019 10:44 AM
Montecito Journal Editor, Public Officials Get a Lesson in the Brown Act

The Montecito Journal and their editors suffer from wealth envy. They slobber over anyone with $ or fame. Its pathetic really. I get a really good chuckle reading the letters to the editor in that toss away free paper. The mental pretzel twists these people go through to justify their current party leader and our POTUS proves without a doubt that having money is no indication of intelligence or wisdom or understanding... The last couple of years have filled that paper with some of the most asinine and ridiculous letters. Its almost better than satire. What is really sad is how much this paper is truly a reflection of the man himself. Empty, envious and frankly, stupid.

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