Meeting Wrapped in Secrecy

Gilroy City Council calls upon rarely used law to privately
discuss ‘pending litigation’
Gilroy – City council next week will invoke a rarely used state law to shroud a closed-door meeting in complete secrecy.

Normally, officials disclose the subject matter of closed sessions as well as the individuals involved. In recent months, the council has held such meetings to discuss the status of labor talks with the local fire union, as well as negotiations to purchase land for the future arts center. In each case, the meeting agenda specified the purpose and the players.

But on Monday night, council will hold a meeting to discuss “pending litigation” without any indication of the subject matter or the individuals involved. A state law, Government Code Section 54956.9(a), allows city council to meet with attorneys under such circumstances when they believe “disclosure would jeopardize existing settlement negotiations.”

City Administrator Jay Baksa would not explain how disclosing the name of a lawsuit that is otherwise public record as part of the court system could endanger negotiations. In his 23 years on the job, Baksa could not recall any other time the statute has been used.

“If ever at all, it was sparingly,” he said. “It was felt – and again the attorneys make this call – that by invoking this provision it would lead to the conclusion of this issue.”

City Attorney Linda Callon did not return multiple phone calls for clarification. Mayor Al Pinheiro did not return a call for comment and Councilman Craig Gartman declined to comment.

In addition to a steady flow of claims by people injured on public property, the city is currently embroiled in eminent domain proceedings to acquire land for a new arts center. The Gera family owns roughly half the 2.3 acres of land needed for the facility, slated for construction across from the Caltrain station, but has so far refused to sell. Officials said in recent weeks they planned to file court papers to allow the immediate seizure of the land, leaving it to the courts to sort out a fair price. City attorneys said such a move must be approved by council members, who laid the groundwork for seizure a year ago by signing off on a “resolution of necessity.” Officials would not indicate if Monday’s closed meeting involved an effort to push forward with the seizure or perhaps a settlement that could resolve the stalemate.

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said that most cities invoke the statute when they anticipate a lawsuit or are preparing to file one.

“They generally don’t give a rationale, even though by law they probably should,” he said. “Having said that, there are some cities that are very forthcoming with information, especially where a potential opposing party is aware of the same set of facts. In that case, there really is no reason to keep the public in the dark because the other side already knows.”

The closed session meeting on Monday will take place at 6pm in City Hall, 7351 Rosanna St.

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