Wednesday, October 29, 2008

SB leaders settle suit with Ampersand


Santa Barbara city officials agreed to concede that a violation of open meeting laws may have occurred during a city committee meeting last fall, thus settling a lawsuit filed by Ampersand Publishing, the parent company of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Attorneys for the publishing company alleged the city’s Transportation and Circulation Committee violated the Brown Act by discussing a matter not on its posted agenda — namely a redesign proposal for De la Guerra Plaza that the newspaper has consistently opposed on its editorial pages.

City Attorney Steve Wiley said the discussion was clearly inadvertent and innocent, but said the city decided to save itself the headache of litigation by admitting a possible violation.
“It’s better than wasting time in a lawsuit that really was unnecessary,” he said.
No damages will be paid in the agreed-upon settlement, city officials said, and each side is responsible for its own attorney fees and court costs.
Requests for comment from Ampersand attorney Barry Cappello were not returned yesterday afternoon.
Wiley explained the alleged violation resulted when a commissioner missed an earlier meeting during which the De la Guerra Plaza redesign project had been discussed and wanted to read his written comments at the next meeting.
While city officials can bring up topics not on the agenda to a certain extent, such as asking questions and requesting that staff members get back to them, Wiley said a judge might have taken issue with the discussion.
“It kind of got more problematic when some commissioners started answering questions and responding to him,” Wiley said.
He said mediation between the city and Ampersand occurred in late August and the City Council recently agreed to the proposed settlement.
Although Wiley declined to speculate about Ampersand’s reasons for bringing the lawsuit, he said it is clear “they don’t like what’s being discussed with the De la Guerra Plaza project.”
News-Press representatives have long been opposed to the redesign, stating their objections to its latest iteration during a Planning Commission meeting in February.
Closing the driveway loop through the plaza, as was proposed, would displace approximately 35 parking places, including those near the newspaper’s main office at the west end of the plaza.
After collecting feedback from a variety of city commissions and committees, redevelopment staff sent the project off to a City Council subcommittee for review earlier this year. It’s unclear where the proposed redesign stands now.
Wiley noted in a news release that the city strives to comply with the Brown Act during all public meetings. The city has more than 30 boards, committees and advisory groups consisting of local citizens who advise city leaders on policy decisions, he said, and some minor or technical Brown Act violations may unintentionally occur on occasion.

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