Q&A: Legal expert on the Brown Act case against Santa Clara Valley Athletic League - 02/10/21

Q&A: Legal expert on the Brown Act case against Santa Clara Valley Athletic League Evan Webeck PUBLISHED: February 10, 2021 at 6:30 a.m. | UPDATED: February 10, 2021 at 7:35 a.m. Categories: California News, California Politics, City Politics, Education, High School Sports, Latest Headlines, Local News, News, Politics, Sports Los Gatos' Tyler Williams (9) runs to home plate and scores against Palo Alto in the sixth inning of their CCS Open Division baseball quarterfinal at Washington Park in Santa Clara, California on Saturday, May 18, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group) Did the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League violate the Ralph M. Brown Act when it voted and finalized its spring sports schedule? A parent of a Palo Alto High School baseball player has brought a complaint that by law requires a response within 30 days, alleging the league didn’t take proper steps under the California public records law. However, First Amendment expert David Snyder said Brown Act complaints can be thorny, drawn-out legal processes that are sometimes filed more out of grievance with an outcome than the process that led up to it. It’s not clear if Charles Goldberg’s claim has merit, but Snyder said there are two questions that need to be answered: Does the SCVAL Board of Managers fall under the jurisdiction of the Brown Act? If so, did it provide adequate public notice and ability to comment? In an interview Tuesday, commissioner Brad Metheany said he typically notifies his schools of upcoming meetings via email, and administrators post that bulletin in school office windows. But with campuses closed, it wasn’t clear if proper notice was made prior to the Jan. 21 meeting, at which the Board of Managers approved the three-season schedule. Metheany reiterated his commitment to getting student-athletes back on the field as quickly as possible and said that “we’re losing track of what we’re trying to do here.” “We’re trying to get as many of our teams as we can back in competition and out of their bedrooms and have some fun,” Metheany said. “That’s what I’m trying to do for the service of my 14 schools, and I think my Board of Managers has been very thoughtful about trying to make that happen for as many kids as they can in a critical time for young people. Seemingly we’re going sideways here.” To help sort out the legal case behind Goldberg’s complaint, Snyder, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael, spoke over the phone Tuesday with the Bay Area News Group. The conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, can be found below. Evan Webeck: First off, what is the Brown Act and how can it be applied here? David Snyder, First Amendment Coalition: So the primary allegation appears to be that this body didn’t adequately notify or maybe didn’t issue a notice at all of the meeting at which they made the decision that the letter-writer objects to. … But let me explain why all of that matters. The Brown Act has requirements for legislative bodies that are subject to it to post agendas for meetings a specific amount of time in advance. That amount of time in advance depends on the kind of meeting it is. For the vast majority of meetings, it has to be 72 hours in advance. In special circumstances, they can call a special meeting. They can’t just do that at the drop of the hat. There have to be certain thresholds met. But if they do that, they can post an agenda 24 hours in advance. Then there are emergency meetings, in which the agenda posting requirements are even more flexible. … Second is the way it describes what it is supposed to be deciding. Its requirements are fairly minimal in this regard but it has to say basic facts about what’s being decided and that description can’t be misleading. It has to fairly describe the topic they are going to discuss or decide. Without seeing what they said about this meeting, if anything, it’s hard to know if they gave adequate notice or not. EW: How often is it used in the context of high school or high school sports administration? DS: I haven’t seen it before in the context of high school sports, but that doesn’t mean the Brown Act doesn’t apply here. The Brown Act doesn’t apply to any meeting of any body that discusses matter relating to the public interest. It applies to a lot of different kinds of bodies. Whether it applies here would seem to apply to the body itself, which it should have an answer to. … I saw minutes for meetings, but I didn’t see agendas. Agendas are one of the things the Brown Act requires that a body subject to the Brown Act post in advance of the meeting. The idea is the public has to have some notice about what they’re going to be talking about. … Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that they are subject to the Brown Act and they are following the Brown Act’s requirements, if they had an emergency meeting or any kind of meeting, there should have been some kind of agenda released at some point. For an emergency meeting, that agenda could have been very quickly before the meeting. But they still have to have a public agenda. EW: Generally, what is the threshold for a meeting or governing body to fall under the Brown Act? DS: That’s a tougher question to answer than it sounds like. Generally a policymaking body that has some authority over a public agency. There are all kinds of entities that are subject to the Brown Act. Whether committees of that body are subject to the Brown Act depends on the circumstances in which the committee arose. (Metheany) mentioned an ‘ad hoc committee’ (prior to the Board of Managers meeting). There are circumstances where a truly ad hoc committee doesn’t have to follow the requirements of the Brown Act. On the other hand, a standing committee always has to follow the requirements of the Brown Act. … An ad-hoc committee would be a committee that is less than a quorum of the full body. If they don’t have a regular meeting schedule, if they don’t have a specific ongoing obligation to fulfill with the overarching body, that’s an ad hoc committee and wouldn’t be subject to the Brown Act. If, however, it’s a standing committee, then it would be. And a standing committee is where the legislative body forms a sub-quorum entity that has some continuing obligations, usually has a regular schedule of meetings, those kinds of committees are subject to the Brown Act. … But it sounds like that may not matter much here because there was some ultimate decision by the Board of Managers that is at issue here. And if it’s the case that the Board of Managers is itself a body that is subject to the Brown Act, then you don’t have to worry so much about the committee. The question then is did the Board of Managers issue an agenda and what did that agenda say? EW: Let’s say the complaint is valid, what would the implications of that be? DS: Before anyone can file a lawsuit under the Brown Act, they have to issue what’s called a Cure and Correct letter (which Goldberg delivered to the Board of Managers on Monday). It’s supposed to highlight the ways in which the person who has the complaint believes the agency didn’t follow the Brown Act. The agency has 30 days to respond, or it can decide not to respond. It can respond by saying, ‘You know what, you’re right, we’re going to re-do the meetings that didn’t follow the Brown Act.’ It’s rare that that happens but it happens. Or they can say, ‘You’re wrong, here’s all the ways in which we followed the Brown Act, we don’t have any obligation to do anything different.’ If the agency comes back with that response, then the person who’s complaining can then file a lawsuit. If the agency doesn’t respond at all, then the individual is free to sue the agency under the Brown Act after 30 days elapse. If they sue, what a court can do is require the legislative body to essentially do the meetings that violated the Brown Act over again and do them in a way that complies with the Brown Act. The court can nullify decisions made in violation of the Brown Act and require they do them over again. EW: In terms of a timeline, it sounds like this could extend well beyond the spring sports season that it is being fought over. DS: That season’s already under way, right? Yeah, there’s a timeline that the Brown Act sets forth and it doesn’t really lend itself to immediate resolution. … The agency can voluntarily say, ‘You’re right, we screwed up and we’re going to re-do these meetings.’ Other than that, in order to bring a lawsuit, you generally have to wait those 30 days. And a lawsuit can take a long time. We’ve filed at least once that I can think of off the top of my head that didn’t resolve for over two years. … Just for context because it often comes up in situations like this where there is a person who strongly disagrees with a decision made by the legislative body and they want that decision reversed, and they see the Brown Act as a potential way of accomplishing that reversal. In some instances, and I’m not saying that’s the case here, but there isn’t so much a Brown Act issue so much as there’s basically a disagreement with the decision. Groups and individuals try to shoehorn the Brown Act into it, but it really doesn’t fit — they just don’t like the outcome. But it’s hard to tell what the merits of these Brown Act claims are because I just don’t know enough about what the agency did or what it was required to do.