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Red-Faced Board Learns It's Been Meeting Illegally

Mariposa supervisors' slip-up over their weekly gathering place follows recent criticism of their pay raise and a local development project.

May 06, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

Like clockwork, the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors has met each Tuesday for the last three years at 9 a.m. sharp, raring and ready to run through the weekly agenda in its new headquarters, a spacious and modern county government center.

Right time, wrong place.

The board recently learned that a dusty and long-forgotten section of the county code requires that public sessions be held a block away, in the antique white-clapboard courthouse, the supervisors' home for nearly 150 years. When the new government center opened in October 1999, nobody bothered to amend the old code.

That revelation has heaped embarrassment on board members, already under fire for a big pay raise they've proposed for themselves. It has also raised concerns in some quarters that the supervisors' myriad decisions during the last three years on matters big and small could be subject to court challenge.

"It's a terrible reflection on us and extremely embarrassing," lamented Supervisor Janet Bibby, who took office just four months ago but already feels like a battle-scarred veteran.

Added Supervisor Bob Pickard: "The hair on the back of my neck stood up when we learned about this."

Jeff Green, the county's chief legal counsel, acknowledged the oversight. When county government moved into its new home, no one thought to look at the boilerplate minutiae of the old code book, which dates back to the Gold Rush days when Mariposa County came into being.

He conducted hurried research into the case law and breathed a sigh of relief. Green has since assured the supervisors that no court would overturn one of their decisions -- let alone more than three years of governance -- because of their errant location.

"First, I think it's unlikely anyone would sue over a past action because of this. I don't know what they'd accomplish," Green said. "No. 2, it would be expensive to sue. Third, I think they'd lose. I just don't think any court would undo a board action based on this sort of technicality."

This being California, a land of much litigation, some folks are betting a few irked citizens might yet pounce.

"Why wouldn't someone who's been skewered by a board vote not go ahead and sue?" asked Bart Brown of Mariposans for Environmentally Responsible Growth, a group often at odds with the supervisors. "This is an open-door deal for lawsuits. It's a risk. And, of course, the taxpayers are the ones on the short end."

Preceding events whipped up the hubbub, locals say.

A month ago, the board proposed raising its members' $34,000 salary by nearly 40%, but ratcheted that back to about 24% after residents protested. There remains talk among some community activists about mounting a referendum to undo the pay raise.

Meanwhile, residents in Fish Camp, a hamlet just outside Yosemite National Park, are up in arms over a planned 125-room hotel and conference center. Dubbed SilverTip Lodge, it's Mariposa County's biggest development project in two decades.

When the board met in Fish Camp two weeks ago to discuss SilverTip and the pay raise, it was met by an irate bunch -- and an unsettling revelation.

Mike Byrd, owner of a Mariposa-based Internet server company, told board members that any action they took would be illegal, because by law they were supposed to meet only in the county seat of Mariposa, specifically at the old courthouse.

Byrd warned the supervisors that they would be "personally liable" and face "fines and imprisonment" if they conducted business away from their home base.

The board, on the advice of the county counsel, went ahead and voted on the supervisorial pay raise. A day later, Green sent out a memo saying he, in fact, had erred.

Scurrying to fix matters, supervisors put the pay raise back on the agenda for today, along with an amendment to the county code correcting the board's weekly meeting location, reflecting its 3-year-old move to the government center.

But to play it safe, the board will begin its meeting in the old courthouse, then adjourn to its new digs. Green calls it simply a precautionary move.

"It's unfortunate," Supervisor Bibby said. "But we have to deal with it."

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