East Valley Water District Board Asks DA For Sturgeon Brown Act Probe

(January 30)  East Valley Water District Board Member Kip Sturgeon is being investigated for leaking confidential district information to the press, officials have confirmed.
The investigation pertains to allegations that Sturgeon provided information pertaining to salary and bonuses for district general manager John Mura that the board was contemplating and which they had discussed behind closed doors.
Of note is that Sturgeon’s board colleagues had requested the investigation, citing  “possible violations of the Brown Act” by Sturgeon in making the request despite suggestions that the board had itself skirted provisions of the same law by conducting the private discussions without proper and full disclosure, which is itself a violation of another provision of the Brown Act.
The Ralph M. Brown Act is California’s open meeting law, which requires that deliberations with regard to the actions of public agencies by their governing boards, with very narrow exceptions, be carried out in public. The exceptions contained in the act relate to discussions involving litigation involving the agency, the purchase or sale of real estate, and items relating to agency personnel.
In the current case, the board discussed Mura’s salary and benefit package during an executive session. The board agreed to utilize a survey of the salaries provided to the general managers of other water agencies to arrive at a consensus of what would be offered to Mura. When the district’s personnel division completed that survey, it emailed a list of positions and salaries to the board members.
Sturgeon has acknowledged that before any vote was taken on what Mura would be offered, he provided a copy of the list to the Highland Community News. He maintains that he believed the list, which contained information that was publicly available from each of the district’s surveyed, qualified as public information.
The other members of the board – James Morales, Jr., Ben Coleman, Ronald Coats, and Matt Levesque, maintain the list was the work product of ongoing closed door deliberations and should not have been distributed to the public. Levesqe, who at that time was board chairman, was particularly incensed at Sturgeon’s action.
The complaint to the district attorney’s office contained further reference to Sturgeon having publicly disclosed, again through the Highland Community News, that the board was contemplating conferring on Mura a $50,000 bonus. The newspaper then reported on the matter before the board made a public announcement regarding it.
Coleman and Coats appeared to be prepared to let the matter be redressed by a stern warning to Sturgeon. But Levesque, who is somewhat of a political rival of Sturgeon, was determined to see the matter taken up on an official level, particularly because Sturgeon had initially denied being the source of the leak, which, Levesque implied, demonstrated criminal intent and consciousness of guilt.
He prevailed upon the board to send the matter to the district attorney’s office and its public integrity unit.
While the Brown Act, which exists as California Government Code  §54950 et sequitur,   is intended to ensure that public issues are handled in the open so that citizens can participate in the governmental process, it does permit some degree of confidentiality to be maintained where secrecy is deemed appropriate and premature disclosure of information might be detrimental to the public interest.
Government Code Section 54963 provides that a person may not disclose confidential information that has been acquired by attending a properly closed session to a person not entitled to receive it, unless the disclosure is authorized by the legislative body.
Confidential information is defined as a communication made in a closed session that is specifically related to the basis for the legislative body to meet lawfully in closed session.
If that prohibition is violated, it may be, according to the California Attorney General’s Office, enforced by injunctive relief to prevent the disclosure of confidential information, disciplinary action against the official or employee who has willfully disclosed the confidential information or referral of the matter to a grand jury. Disciplinary action must be  preceded by training or notice of the prohibition.
It is  Government Code Section 54963 that Levesque, with the reluctant endorsement of his three board colleagues, wants applied against Sturgeon.
There are loopholes in section 54963. Under it, no action can be taken against a person for making a confidential inquiry or complaint to a legally constituted authority concerning a perceived violation of law, including disclosing facts that are necessary to establish the illegality of an action taken by a legislative body or the potential illegality of an action that has been the subject of deliberation at a closed session if that action were ultimately to be taken by the legislative body. Nor can action be taken against an official who has made disclosure of material or discussion from a closed session if that person is expressing an opinion concerning the propriety or legality of actions taken by a legislative body in closed session, including disclosure of the nature and extent of the illegal or potentially illegal action.
Moreover, no violation of section 54963 can be deemed to have occurred if the disclosure involves information that is not in fact confidential information.
Levesque’s insistence that the district attorney be brought into the case is a curious one in that he has himself admitted that he violated one of the provisions of the Brown Act, specifically engaging in serial meetings of the board’s members, which is prohibited under  Government Code Section 54952.2(c)(1).

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