by Leslie Layton
posted Dec. 4
The City of Chico has issued a Cease and Desist order to Councilmember Addison Winslow, accusing him of divulging confidential information from a closed session. The councilmember has responded, calling the City’s accusations “politically motivated” and its threat of an injunction “an act of political repression.”
At the heart of the problem is an amicus brief -– a legal document the City filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on the subject of homelessness -– and whether the discussion and decision to file the brief justified a closed session. The 48-page document, likely to cost almost $30,000, supports an effort in Grants Pass, Ore., to get a Supreme Court review of rulings that limit the ability of cities to enforce anti-camping ordinances.
In a Nov. 27 cease-and-desist letter to Winslow, the City warns that the District 4 councilmember, the panel’s lone progressive, is “on record discussing confidential closed session information” with ChicoSol and two other media outlets. It threatens legal action against Winslow if disclosures continue.
Signed by City Attorney John Lam, the letter says Winslow has violated state law by disclosing confidential information, but doesn’t specify what was disclosed that was confidential. “For any future violations, the City is prepared to take all necessary legal action allowed by law …,” Lam states.
(Lam said in an email received this evening that he had no comment on the matter beyond the letter.)
The City of Chico warns that it can seek injunctive relief for unauthorized disclosure or refer to the grand jury.
The City contends that Winslow’s “unauthorized disclosure … actively undermines the interests of the City and its residents.”
Winslow challenges that notion in a Nov. 30 statement addressed “To the residents of Chico,” and says that the letter is clearly referring to the councilmember’s comments on the amicus brief. ChicoSol reported early last month that the brief could cost up to $50,000, an estimate that Winslow said then had been provided to the Council.
In an email today, City Manager Mark Sorensen says that preliminary amicus brief fees and costs total $29,487. The cost of filing the document is public information, and ChicoSol has filed a Public Records Act request for information on the final cost.
Winslow also told reporters last month that overturning court rulings on homelessness could create a “humanitarian disaster,” and said the amicus brief might have little or no impact.
In his response to the City, Winslow writes: “The threat to pursue a gag order on me for discussing public business openly is an alarming act of political repression and a perversion of the intention of the Brown Act. The interest of the public is in candid and open discussion by policymakers, which I attempt to uphold.
“For my own legal protection I have to comply with the demands of the letter but the notion that any disclosure harmed the interests of the City is specious and politically motivated,” the councilmember says.
Winslow asks why a closed session was needed for the discussion on the amicus brief. “Who are we negotiating against that compels us to keep these communications private?” he says.
At the First Amendment Coalition based in San Rafael, Legal Director David Loy said he would “tend to agree” that the filing of an amicus brief would not justify a closed session. The filing of such a brief is merely a statement of opinion or viewpoint, he pointed out, not a step toward initiating litigation.
The exceptions made in the Brown Act for closed sessions “should not cover amicus briefs,” Loy said, when the supporting petitioner -– the city filing the brief — would not be a party to the case and likely to be sued.
The Brown Act allows exclusion of the public for closed-session meeting in specific circumstances, as in the case of “pending litigation when discussion in open session … would prejudice the position of the local agency in the litigation.”
Winslow says the closed session was “part of a broader pattern of the City Council invoking the Warren v. Chico settlement as a blanket excuse for restricting matters related to shelter and homelessness in Chico to closed session meetings …”
“This letter and the rancor of the City Council majority behind it stifles my ability to represent the public on crucial issues. I will, however, continue to oppose abuse of the Brown Act, strive to assure public matters are discussed publicly, and defend the interests of the people I am elected to represent,” Winslow’s statement says.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.