With the filing of a recent lawsuit, the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District (IVRPD) has found itself facing its second major legal battle with the Santa Barbara Libertarian Party in less than a year.
On Dec. 15, the Santa Barbara chapter of the Libertarian Party filed suit against the IVRPD with the chapter’s vice chairman, Michael Lamboley, named as plaintiff. In the suit, Lamboley’s lawyer, William Hansult, alleges that the board violated the Brown Act – a California law requiring meetings of legislative bodies to be open to the public – during three closed session meetings in August and September. IVRPD General Manager Derek Johnson said the board used the meetings to interview law firms looking to serve as the IVRPD’s legal counsel. Since meetings dealing with district employment issues are exempt from the Brown Act, Johnson said the IVRPD did not violate the law.
“The district fully believes in the Brown Act,” Johnson said. “We are confident in the district’s position that the district lawfully met in closed session to interview legal counsel.”
According to the text of the lawsuit, the Libertarian Party is asking Judge James W. Brown, who is presiding over the case, to issue an injunction against the IVPRD. The injunction would officially condemn the district’s actions and prohibit the board from violating the Brown Act in the future. The party also calls for the board to pay the Libertarian Party’s legal fees, as well as any other financial penalties the court deems necessary.
Lamboley said the IVRPD could potentially avoid a legal battle over the alleged violation if it admits that the lawsuit’s accusations are correct and changes its procedures accordingly.
“The district can either say to the judge that [the Libertarian Party is] right and this is how they’re going to fix it, or they can fight it and it could cost them money,” Lamboley said.
According to papers Hansult filed at the Santa Barbara Superior Court in support of the suit, the Libertarian Party believes that legal action is the only way to keep the IVRPD from violating the Brown Act again in the future.
“The actions of the defendants … were designed to purposefully and maliciously deprive the people of their right to know and to remain informed of the actions taken by the public body,” Hansult stated in the supporting documents. “Further it is believed and hereby alleged that without this court’s intervention and issuance of an injunction, that the board will continue to violate the Brown Act in similar ways.”
IVRPD board member Bryan Brown said he thinks the Libertarian Party is using the suit to get money from the district.
“They have consistently made it clear they’re out for money,” Brown said. “This is an attempt to gouge the district.”
However, Lamboley said the lawsuit was motivated by a desire to hold local governing bodies accountable to state laws.
“The State of California has some of the best good government laws in the nation, but there are no provisions in the budget for enforcing those laws,” Lamboley said. “They’re on the books, but it’s up to individuals or organizations to enforce these rules and basically that’s what we’re doing.”
Brown said the suit comes down to how the judge decides to interpret the Brown Act.
“They’re claiming that by interviewing attorneys in closed session, we violated the Brown Act because an attorney is not an official employee, they’re an independent contractor,” Brown said. “The Brown Act says you can meet to discuss official employees, but there’s a conflict in how the Brown Act specifies who is an employee.”
In early 2005, a judge ordered the IVRPD to pay over $40,000 in fines stemming from a lawsuit filed by the Libertarian Party in November 2001 over another Brown Act violation. Johnson said the suit ultimately cost the district close to $300,000 in fines and legal fees.
“It made things tough,” Johnson said. “It made the district’s ability to provide its services tough.”
Brown said the district has been bracing for the second lawsuit since Craig Geyer, who was the Libertarian Party’s chief witness in the 2001 suit, attended one of the meetings in question and informed IVRPD board members that he thought their closed session agenda violated the Brown Act.
Geyer said he is not involved in the lawsuit and declined further comment. The lawsuit itself cites an anonymous citizen who attended an IVRPD meeting and informed the board about the alleged Brown Act violations.
Brown said the IVRPD hopes to have this lawsuit resolved more quickly than the last one, which was in litigation for three years. He said he thinks the two lawsuits show that the Libertarian Party is specifically targeting the IVRPD.
“I think they have a grudge against us for reasons I don’t entirely understand,” Brown said.
The district plans to discuss the suit in further detail at its Jan. 19 meeting, Johnson said.
Hansult could not be reached for comment.