A legal kerfuffle involving the public's right to know erupted this week as an attorney representing housing policy foes squared off with county officials on state anti-secrecy law.

Attorney Ed Yates of San Rafael, representing Community Venture Partners, says county supervisors violated key provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act by discussing housing issues that were not on the agenda of a public meeting last month. His client, Community Venture Partners, an organization headed by housing policy critic Bob Silvestri, says it believes "those most in need of affordable housing solutions are best served by a bottom up approach to planning, development and government decision making."

Yates, citing "substantial violation of central provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act," filed a letter with the county Board of Supervisors that "demands that you cease and desist such violations." The county must respond within 60 days, at which time the matter could proceed to court.

County Counsel Steve Woodside, saying Yates' Brown Act complaint is all bark and no bite, asserted nothing illegal or otherwise inappropriate was done regarding the board's "off agenda" exchange.

At issue is a housing discussion requested by Supervisor Katie Rice during a period for supervisors' statements as a regular board meeting began Aug. 19. The matter was not on the agenda, but she inquired about housing policy procedures, and development chief Brian Crawford, alerted to attend, outlined issues. No deliberation or decision was made.
Yates, noting the discussion lasted 26 minutes, said the law requires notice be given, including an agenda listing, and added that the county violation of the Brown Act was "crystal clear."

The county's top lawyer begged to differ. "I looked at the tape of the meeting," Woodside said. "Nothing illegal was done."

"Asking staff to provide information on a subject not on the agenda ... is not a violation of the Brown Act or anti-secrecy law," Supervisor Rice said. "I asked Brian to provide information about the housing element update so as to highlight the opportunities for public participation throughout, including upcoming Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors' meetings," she said. "Seems like providing clarity on the process is a good thing ... encouraging public participation and assuring an open and transparent public process."

Next time, Yates indicated, make sure the discussion is posted on the agenda so that those interested can attend and opine.