Court could issue ruling Friday in lawsuit against city regarding alleged illegal closed-session meetings

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — A lawsuit against the city over alleged violations of open-meetings laws could soon come to a resolution after nearly two years in court. 

In Kern County Superior Court on Friday morning, a merit hearing will be held in which Judge Stephen Schuett may issue a ruling in a case from the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware against the city of Bakersfield.

“There hasn’t been a lot of forward motion over the past couple of years, as things kept getting delayed, but now the court could make a decision or at least indicate which direction it’s going,” said David Snyder, executive director of the FAC.  

The lawsuit claims that the city violated the Ralph M. Brown Act when it held multiple meetings with the City Council in closed session in fall 2017 regarding significant issues that affect the public, specifically the city’s financial challenges and the need for a more taxes to avoid staff cuts and facility closures. 

In 2017, the FAC was 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. The city eventually gave a similar presentation in public at a City Council meeting.  

“This is not just a technical violation of the law — the violations the city engaged in here were meaningful and substantive. They talked about topics that are really important to voters,” Snyder said. 

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

However, Snyder said that exemption does not apply to the wide-ranging discussions that allegedly took place during the meetings. 

“It’s a very narrow exception where it’s highly likely there will be a lawsuit and the city wants to get advice from the council,” he said. “The city is under the serious and misguided belief it can go into closed session to talk about topics as long as there is some remote hypothetical possibility that a lawsuit could come from it.”

City Attorney Virginia Gennaro referred requests for comment to Clifford & Brown, which is representing the city in the case. The firm will not comment on the case until after the hearing. 

Snyder said he doesn’t know how Friday’s hearing will turn out, but he’s hopeful that the court will side with their case. 

“I’m confident we’ve outlined very clear violations of the Brown Act. We think the violations are so clear on their face,” he said.

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