‘Bad’ Block of Four?

At Council retreat, Mayor Al Pinheiro raises concern about
unofficial meetings
Gilroy – Their campaign signs are mounted side by side around Gilroy. They share similar views on the city’s parks, sidewalk problems and union negotiations. And several times a week, they gather in a booth at Jeffery’s truck stop diner to discuss politics and life.

Council members Bob Dillon, Craig Gartman and Russ Valiquette make little secret about their friendship and common political views. And they make no bones about their hope that Planning Commission Chairman Dion Bracco will join them on council following the Nov. 8 council election.

“I have two other council people that agree with me,” Gartman announced last week during a candidate forum that included Bracco and Dillon. “I have four other council people who disagree. I need to get a fourth person on my team.”

But while acknowledging that his colleagues have not violated the letter of open-meeting laws, Mayor Al Pinheiro publicly criticized the councilmen last week for behavior he sees as stifling public debate. At informal policy discussions Friday, he noted that if Bracco is elected and joins their informal meetings, they would stand in violation of the state’s Brown Act. The law prohibits a majority of the seven-member city council and other elected bodies from discussing policy without proper public notice and access.

“I know it’s your right as three councilmen to go … and have coffee and talk about things,” Pinheiro said. “But when you bring in the fourth individual and still think you can have coffee, that’s when the problem comes in.”

Pinheiro has butted heads with his colleagues over a number of issues in recent months and has not always come out on top. A bare majority of council, including the mayor, narrowly pushed through a controversial housing proposal for Miller Avenue last month amidst a chorus of complaints from residents of the showcase street and from fellow councilmen.

On Sept. 19, before city leaders approved the project, Dillon announced he had conferred with his two colleagues prior to the meeting.

“As Craig, Russ and I have discussed this beforehand,” Dillon said, “I apologize for bringing this to your attention in the public, but the Brown Act says I must.”

Dillon’s remark prefaced a motion to reverse council’s prior decision to rezone the land to allow the Miller Avenue development. He said the announcement was intended as an apology to his fellow council members – whom he could not forewarn about his motion because another phone call would have constituted a quorum, or majority of council, and placed him in violation of the Brown Act.

For his part, Dillon said he was “puzzled” by the mayor’s concern over his talks with Gartman and Valiquette. Even if Bracco is elected, he said he would continue to meet with his colleagues “cognizant of the Brown Act.”

In recent weeks, the three candidates – Bracco, Dillon and Gartman – have merged on nearly all major issues. They fault the city for failing to install parks before construction. They say the city should borrow against future tax revenues to fix cracked sidewalks. And they criticize the handling of negotiations with the fire union, arguing against efforts to uproot binding arbitration, the public safety unions’ strongest bargaining chip in labor disputes.

Pinheiro’s efforts this summer to rally councilmen to uproot the dispute-resolution procedure withered in the face of union complaints about due process and threats of political retribution. In the weeks since, Bracco, Dillon and Gartman have maneuvered around the issue by arguing that state law would simply kick binding arbitration back into place if voters chose to rescind it. The tactic helped earn Bracco and Gartman the endorsement of fire and police unions, while Dillon secured an endorsement from the latter.

Bracco said he has received a flood of support following the endorsement and a series of candidate forums. Many people believe the planning commissioner will secure a spot on the city’s top governing body.

Incumbent Charles Morales, who some at City Hall believe could lose his seat to Bracco, echoed the mayor’s concerns about his colleagues’ meetings away from the dais. He also worried about the council’s future, with or without him.

“They have openly made statements that they need a fourth, and Dion is that fourth person,” Morales said. “In the spirit of debate and open meetings, I think that that practice should be ceased.”

Bracco said he has only met a handful of times with Dillon and Gartman. And while his positions mirror those of his fellow candidates, he did not condone meetings of city leaders outside council chambers.

“I don’t think it’s breaking any laws, but I’m not comfortable with it,” he said. “I would rather issues be discussed before council.”

Gartman pointed out that council has agreed on the vast majority of issues in his four years of service. He defended his meetings with Dillon and Valiquette as a way “to bounce a lot of ideas off each other without violating the law.”

He looked forward to the possibility of Bracco’s election.

“I’m hoping that we can get some things done that Russ, Bob and I have not been able to get accomplished,” he said. “I guess you could look at it the other way – is there a pack opposing us on these issues?”

Bracco, Dillon and Gartman have promised to always honor the Brown Act, but Pinheiro remains concerned.

“If it comes true to where these four gentlemen are on the council, it takes away the ability of each individual to have their own thoughts and have an open debate,” Pinheiro said. “That’s what really scares me.”

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