City pays $107K to public interest groups after judge ruled city held illegal closed-session meetings

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The city of Bakersfield had to pay more than $100,000 in attorney’s fees and other costs relating to the resolution of a lawsuit that claimed the city violated open-meetings laws. 

According to court documents, the city had to pay the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware $107,191.81 last week after a Kern County Judge ruled last month that the city violated open-meetings laws when it held closed-session finance discussions in 2017.

“FAC’s hope is that Bakersfield and other cities get the message that California’s open-government laws have teeth.  Governments flout them at their peril — and at potentially significant cost,” said David Snyder, executive director of FAC. 

The city has declined to provide comment about the outcome of the lawsuit. 

Judge Stephen Schuett said in his ruling that city officials violated Ralph M. Brown Act when it held multiple meetings with the City Council in closed session in fall 2017 regarding the city’s financial challenges and the need for more sales tax revenue to avoid staff cuts and facility closures. 

The city was sued in 2018 by the FAC and Californians Aware after they were sent emails between city staff and council members as well as a copy of a presentation that was allegedly given during closed session by a source familiar with the discussions. 

A similar presentation was given by city officials in public at a subsequent City Council meeting. 

The city has claimed that there were no violations of the Brown Act, as the closed-session meetings were held under the legal exemption of “potential litigation.”

In addition to the fees, Schuett is also requiring the city to record all closed-session meetings for a year and release documents requested by the organizations under the California Public Records Act related to the closed-session meetings. 

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