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