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Council’s closed meetings on Vina examined

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A number of recent City Council meetings relating to Interim City Manager Gus Vina, including the council’s January vote against his promotion, have been closed to the public. An attorney and open government advocate commented on the Brown Act Friday, saying he opposes “closed session” meetings on hiring and firing matters affecting the city manager.

Terry Francke, an attorney for the nonprofit open government group Californians Aware said city manager hiring and firing decisions should be made public.

Central to the issue of closed meetings is the way city officials interpret the Brown Act, a state law intended to make government meetings open to the public at the local level.

The City Council met in a closed session on Jan. 25, when it decided in a 5-4 vote not to promote Vina to the permanent city manager position. City Attorney Eileen Teichert said the closed session complied with the Brown Act.

“The closed session was duly noticed for the purpose of considering appointment or employment of the city manager, consistent with the Brown Act,” Teichert wrote in a Feb. 3 email. “The council’s decision in that closed session to proceed with a nationwide search was a byproduct of their discussions whether or not to appoint Mr. Vina as city manager.”

But Francke noted that the City Council made a choice to hold the meeting in closed session, saying that the Brown Act allows city councils to hold personnel discussions in closed sessions, but does not require it. In Francke’s view, the public should be welcome at discussions on city manager hiring and firing.

"People have a right to know about his or her qualifications and performance for two reasons,” he said.

“First of all, because they have a great interest in knowing the job is being done well, or, if not, what needs to be improved. Secondly, since this person is the most influential individual in the city structure, the council itself needs to be held accountable for choosing the right person and providing direction in a way that’s appropriate to their responsibilities,” he added.

The council’s vote and decision to hold a national search for city manager was announced in the public City Council meeting held later in the evening on Jan. 25. But the discussion leading to the vote was held behind closed doors.

As a result, the public has no on-the-record information for why five of the members of the City Council voted against promoting Vina.

Vina told the City Council Friday that he was resigning with two weeks notice. His last day on the job will be April 8.

Council members Sandy Sheedy, Rob Fong, Kevin McCarty, Darrell Fong and Bonnie Pannell were the five who voted against promoting Vina in January. They are not speaking publicly about why they voted for a national search and did not promote Vina.

They did not return phone calls from The Sacramento Press Friday.

In early February, McCarty said he declined to comment on his vote because it was a “personnel” and “closed session” matter.

Teichert said in her Feb. 3 email that the council members cannot talk about the closed session meeting.

“The Brown Act, the privacy rights of the candidate, and the City Council’s confidentiality policy preclude disclosure of any confidential discussions during closed session,” she wrote.

But Francke said closed sessions on city manager hiring and firing signal that city officials are hiding from the public.

“If their decision, on this person, is shrouded from public accountability, their single most important decision is also shrouded,” he said. “And, if that’s the case, then they’re ducking accountability and public scrutiny, as well.”

Read the full text of the Brown Act here. 

Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. 

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