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Brea Law Clamps Down on Leaks From Closed Sessions : City Council: Officials say information from private meetings on redevelopment has been released. Some experts question the ordinance's constitutionality.

June 23, 1995|JOHN POPE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BREA — The Brea City Council has passed a law that would punish council members with fines or jail time if they talk about any matter discussed in closed-door meetings.

City Attorney James L. Markman said Thursday that an unidentified council member has leaked information about conversations during the city's closed-door meetings about redevelopment in recent years.

"We have had experiences that led us to believe things discussed in executive sessions were finding their way to the other party," he said. "And it's almost a constant problem with labor negotiations."

In one case, Markman said, the city tried to obtain property located in a redevelopment zone by eminent domain. When the owners sued the city, Markman said, the lawsuit contained information that could only have been obtained from a closed meeting.

The ordinance, which passed 4-0 Tuesday with no discussion, prohibits council members "or any other person present during a closed session" from disclosing information.

Councilwoman Kathryn E. Wiser was absent from the meeting.

Closed-door meetings are permitted by the state law for discussions about personnel, pending litigation and real estate negotiations. The law contains no prohibition against discussing those meetings.

Brea is among a small number of Orange County cities to adopt such a law. Mission Viejo passed a similar ordinance in 1992, and Costa Mesa has had one since 1960, officials said. The Santa Ana City Council adopted the law in 1990 when it discovered that one of its members was set to testify against the city in a lawsuit involving street vendors.

In a 1993 opinion, the state attorney general said city laws like these would be considered void in court, because state law already provides remedies if an official engages in serious misconduct.

Markman, the city attorney, said he "squarely disagreed" with the attorney general's opinion.

"We felt it necessary to send a message that the council takes these [leaks] very seriously."

A legal expert on the state's open meetings laws said the city ordinances might violate the First Amendment right of free speech.

If a councilman were prosecuted under the code, it "would probably be held unconstitutional," said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "Because an elected official disclosing information discussed in a session could be engaging in political speech, which is given the highest protection by the Constitution."

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