The meetings of two Malibu City Council members whom the council had charged with reviewing and negotiating over a land use plan prepared by the Coastal Commission were not subject to the state's open meeting law, an appellate court panel has ruled.

A citizens group argued that then-Mayor Joan House and Councilman Jeff Jennings were functioning as a committee that should have been covered by the Brown Act, which regulates local government meetings. But the court ruled that House and Jennings composed a “limited term ad hoc committee” that was not required to meet in public.

Adoption of a Local Coastal Plan (LCP) - a plan that regulates development in the coastal zone - has been a controversial issue in Malibu since the city incorporated in 1991. The city never adopted an LCP, so the state Legislature directed the Coastal Commission to prepare a plan for the city. The city has fought the Coastal Commission every step of the way.

In September 2001, the Coastal Commission issued a draft of the land use plan (LUP), one element of the coastal plan. Thereafter, House and Jennings conducted private meetings with various individuals and staff members to “go over the city's response” to the draft plan, according to the court. In December 2001, House and Jennings recommended that the City Council not accept the Coastal Commission's plan. The council directed House and Jennings to continue negotiating with the Coastal Commission.

Some people had asked that House and Jennings open their meetings to everyone, but city officials insisted that public meetings were not required. A group called Taxpayers for Livable Communities sued, arguing that the meetings violated the Brown Act (Government Code § 54950). Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian ruled for the city, finding that House and Jennings were not a “legislative body” to which the Brown Act would apply. Taxpayers for Livable Communities appealed. A three-judge panel of the Second District Court of Appeal, Division Eight, upheld the lower court.

Taxpayers for Livable Communities argued that House and Jennings were a standing committee for land use and planning. Standing committees of a legislative body are subject to the Brown Act.

Jennings and House were the only two members of the Land Use and Planning Committee, but the trial court and the appellate panel ruled that the City Council had reserved for itself jurisdiction over the city's response to the Coastal Commission. “[J]ust because the Land Use and Planning Committee tried to develop Malibu's own Local Coastal Program does not mean the City Council gave the Land Use and Planning Committee jurisdiction over the city's response to the commission's LUP for Malibu,” the appellate court ruled.

Taxpayers for Livable Communities also argued that House and Jennings were an “other body” within the meaning of the Brown Act because they had decision-making authority. The appellate court, however, pointed to the Attorney General's “2002 Handbook on the Brown Act.”

“[T]he Handbook,” wrote the court, “offered as an example of an exempt advisory committee 'two city council members named to a committee for the purpose of producing a report in six months on downtown traffic congestion.' The Handbook explains that the Brown Act does not apply to the traffic committee because it is a 'limited term ad hoc committee' charged with accomplishing a specific task in a short period of time. Change the subject matter from traffic congestion to the Coastal Commission's Land Use Plan, and Jennings and House are indistinguishable from the Handbook's hypothetical council members.”

Taxpayers for Livable Communities argued that the evidence regarding the responsibilities of House and Jennings could be interpreted differently, but the Second District ruled that the trial court properly resolved any conflicts in favor of the city.

The Case:
Taxpayers for Livable Communities v. City of Malibu, No. B168630. 05 C.D.O.S. 1366. 2005 DJDAR 1855. Filed February 15, 2005.
The Lawyers:
For Taxpayers: Corin Kahn, (818) 907-8986,
For the city: Christi Hogin, Jenkins & Hogin, (310) 643-8448.