California residents say city tried to muzzle councilman

Monday, August 23, 1999

A Mission Viejo, Calif., City Council member says that while the council met in closed session last spring, his colleagues criticized him for talking to the press.

But Councilman John Paul Ledesma told the press about that, and now three residents are striking back at the city, filing a lawsuit in state court against the City Council, the mayor, three council members and the city itself.

Mission Viejo residents Ken Crenshaw, Bradley Morton and Eugene Dale filed suit on Aug. 19, charging that the city violated a state law that requires public access to most council debate. They say the city undermined the democratic process by attempting to chill Ledesma's freedom of expression.

“Putting any constraints on the ability of an elected official to talk to the press is completely contradictory to our democratic form of government, and it needs to be stopped,” the residents' attorney, James V. Lacy, said.

In a letter dated July 6, the residents warned the city that they would file a complaint if the city did not apologize, admit wrongdoing and tell the public what they discussed in the April 19 closed session.

In response, Mayor Sherri M. Butterfield denied wrongdoing in a prepared statement at an Aug. 16 council meeting. She said the council censured Ledesma at an April 19 meeting because he had exposed confidential information that dealt with personnel and real estate negotiations. Butterfield also said that Ledesma misrepresented the council's position on redevelopment bonds in order to achieve personal gain.

“As a matter of integrity, it is similarly inappropriate for any member of the City Council or the city staff to misrepresent to the public or press for personal gain a known position of the City Council as being other than one taken, thereby compromising the City's strategy, placing the City in jeopardy in ongoing negotiations, and putting its finances at great risk,” Butterfield wrote.

The residents say the city violated California's Brown Act, a state law that allows councils to enter closed session only if the items to be discussed deal with topics such as pending litigation, finance or personnel. Those items must be put on the agenda ahead of time, and any action taken must be disclosed to the public as soon as possible.

The law also provides that “the conduct of a legislative body member may be discussed only in open session.”

Ledesma said that the council began its closed session on April 19 by discussing topics on its agenda. Then, he said, the mayor dismissed the city attorney and the city manager from the meeting. He said the council then criticized a proposal that he was planning to introduce. The proposal would have required voter approval of certain city-funded development projects.

At that point, Ledesma said, the other council members reprimanded him for telling the press about his proposal. He said other council members also told him, “the gloves are off.”

“Policy should not be discussed behind closed doors,” Ledesma said. “It should all be in public, and for [the other council members] to assert that I should not discuss the possible ordinances before they're introduced is absolutely ludicrous.”

Butterfield said in her statement that Ledesma had told the press that he put his proposal on the agenda “to embarrass” the other council members, to “show them for what they are,” and to “make it difficult for them to get re-elected.”

“By his own admission, he was proposing public policy, not for the public good, but for personal gain and political advantage,” Butterfield wrote.

Ledesma disputed that assertion and denied telling the press about wanting to embarrass the other council members or to “show them for what they are.” He called Butterfield's statements “maliciously false,” “fictitious” and “libelous.”

But he said that he did tell the press about wanting to make it difficult for the other council members to get re-elected.

Morton, one of the plaintiffs and president of the California-based Committee for Integrity in Government, said that the council's censure of Ledesma harmed not just the councilman, but the ability of the public to keep an eye on their elected officials.

“Although Ledesma was singled out in this closed session, the damage is really to the public because it keeps the public from seeing the legislative process,” he said. “If [government officials] want to chastise each other, they should do it in public so the public can see their tactics.

“When you have backroom government, the public has no idea how government is being transacted,” Morton said.

Calls placed to City Attorney Peter Thorson, Butterfield and the other council members were not returned. The city manager's assistant, Karen Wylie, returned a call for City Manager Dan Joseph and referred questions to the mayor's August 16 statement.

No court date has been set in the lawsuit.