Mercury News Court Victory On Secret Meetings p.67

By: M.L. Stein Judge: Council members were wrong

EMPHASIZING THAT "WRONGDOING or incompetence are matters of public concern," a California superior court judge has ruled in favor of the San Jose Mercury News in its battle against secret meetings held by the City Council of Sunnyvale.
The ruling by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Richard C. Turrone was a victory for the newspaper in a two-year confrontation with members of the Sunnyvale governing body. The legal action was focused on eight closed sessions council members held to discuss the conduct of a former mayor.
The roots of the case date to 1994, when the council ousted then-mayor Frances Rowe for alleged interference with the council and conduct unbecoming her office. Rowe countered that she was targeted for asking tough questions about how the city was run, including the size of city attorney Valerie Armento's budget.
Remaining on the council, Rowe took out a full-page ad in the Mercury News, blasting colleagues for her removal and accusing Armento of instigating it. The council subsequently held closed sessions on the matter.
The Mercury News learned of the private council sessions and, under the California Public Record Act, demanded that the body rescind all actions in those gatherings, release related documents, and hold a public meeting to air the complaints against Rowe. The city refused and the newspaper filed suit.
In his ruling, Judge Turrone rejected the defense of the City Council that the secret meetings were legitimate personnel sessions. He ruled that they were only about employee complaints against ex-mayor Rowe and how those complaints should be addressed.
The council's punishments included barring Rowe from City Hall except for council meetings and from almost all contact with either the city attorney or outside counsel.
In vindicating the Mercury News, Turrone commented: "Even more troubling is that all of these actions, restrictions and censures were imposed behind closed doors. If Rowe was truly guilty of the conduct that was being alleged against her, then the citizens of Sunnyvale had a right to know that their representative was engaging in unbecoming conduct. Conversely, if, as alleged by Rowe, the activities of the majority of the council and . . . Armento were an orchestrated attempt to smear and disrupt her political influence, then that is also something that should have been brought to the attention of the public. Simply stated, wrongdoing or incompetence are matters of public concern."n
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