San Diego City Atty. John Witt on Friday began an official inquiry into possible violations of the Brown Act by asking City Council members what they were doing this week during private meetings to discuss the $644-million municipal budget.
In a memo issued late Friday, Witt said the inquiry was prompted by a press report that paraphrased Councilwoman Gloria McColl as saying the council reached a consensus on the 1987 budget in meetings Wednesday and Thursday.
The state's Brown Act requires all meetings and decisions by legislative bodies, such as the City Council, to be conducted in public. Closed-door sessions are reserved for confidential matters, such as discussions of personnel matters, litigation or property purchases.
The San Diego Tribune on Friday paraphrased McColl as saying that council members tried to avoid violations of the Brown Act during their private budget discussions by making sure that no more than four council members were present at any one time. Five council members, a simple majority, constitute a quorum.
But Witt told council members in his memo Friday that the presence of a quorum is not required for a misdemeanor violation of the law. He said a 1985 California Court of Appeal decision held that a series of phone calls from one legislator to another could constitute a violation.
One private meeting on the budget was held in McColl's office and included acting Mayor Ed Struiksma, Councilmen Uvaldo Martinez and William Jones as well as their aides. Two aides who attended the meeting told The Times that it lasted from about 2 to 3:15 p.m. as dozens of people waited two floors above in the council chambers for the public budget meeting to start at 2 p.m.
When the public session finally started around 3:20 p.m., Struiksma apologized for the delay, then read a list of budget items to be approved by his colleagues. Some discussion was offered, but the vote was relatively quick, compared to other budget sessions that went on for hours over smaller matters.
The aide who attended McColl's meeting said this was exactly the reason why council members were talking privately.
"In the absence of having these kinds of discussions in these offices, they would have had a discussion upstairs," said the aide, who asked for anonymity. "It took all morning to come to some kind of agreement. They would still be up there if they discussed this on the stage."
The aide said the four council members met after Struiksma had polled at least two other council members, Bill Cleator and Judy McCarty. The foursome in McColl's office agreed to at least two last-minute additions to the budget--funding for a Centre City East community plan and for an urban conservation corps.
McColl aide Marla Marshall said, however, there was no "decision made" during the private meeting, which she said occurred by "accident."
"Nobody polled the group," Marshall said. "Nobody said, 'Does anybody agree with this list?' . . . When everyone left, there was a consensus or clear picture of what everybody's desires were, but no consensus of what was the (final budget) vote."
But the two additions mentioned at the meeting caught McCarty by surprise. She said she did not know about them until the private meeting was finished and Struiksma read the final list of budget items in the public session.
She questioned those additions before the vote, but they were incorporated into the budget.
"I went up to council session . . . and nobody showed up, and I heard somebody say that Gloria was in her office and was making up a list," McCarty said.
Asked if the council usually uses a series of private meetings to conduct public business, McCarty said: "Maybe it's not unusual. I'm very sorry if it is usual."
McColl, Struiksma, Jones, Martinez, Mike Gotch, Cleator and Abbe Wolfsheimer could not be reached at their offices or homes Friday afternoon.
Witt said he will wait for responses from the council members before he takes action.
One possibility, he said, would be to refer the matter to the district attorney for possible prosecution.