Letter Requesting Investigation of Inglewood Sent to LA County District Attorney

The City of Inglewood attempted to minimize transparency as they planned to ratify a negotiating agreement with representatives of the Los Angeles Clippers, freshly released emails reveal. The documents may even show evidence of criminal activity.

I’ve reported on the City’s dubious effort to hide over 100 emails written while preparing an Exclusive Negotiating Agreement (ENA) between the City and Murphy’s Bowl, a shell corporation possessed by Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. After a court order to release the contents of these emails, we now have an idea of why neither Inglewood nor Murphy’s Bowl wanted them public.

“What are the city’s requirements for when the ENA has to be posted,” asks Chris Hunter, a lawyer representing Murphy’s Bowl, just six days before a special City Council meeting to approve the ENA. “I understand The agenda has to go out 24 hours in advance but the question I was asked was whether the document must be part of the public agenda or can it be down loaded shortly before the hearing” (sic).

He goes on to say, “Our entity” – a reference to Murphy’s Bowl – “will have a generic name so it won’t identify the proposed project.”

Royce Jones, a lawyer hired by the City, replies: “The document has to be posted with the agenda. That is why we elected to just post 24 hours versus the normal 72 hours.”

 

A June 9 email exchange between Chris Hunter, representing the Clippers, and Royce Jones, representing the City of Inglewood.
A June 9 email exchange between Chris Hunter, representing the Clippers, and Royce Jones, representing the City of Inglewood, that shows an attempt to minimize public involvement in the Clippers arena negotiation process.

Jones is referring to the City’s decision to hold a special meeting, requiring 24 hours advanced notice, versus bringing the issue to a regular city council meeting, which would require 72 hours notice. In other words, Inglewood and the Clippers purposefully chose to hold a special meeting for no other reason than to reduce the amount of notice required.

This short exchange fits into a continued pattern of keeping the public at arms length with respect to the arena proposal. Nowhere in the communications between Mr. Hunter and Mr. Jones – which wouldn’t even be public if not for a lawsuit and court order within that lawsuit – is there any suggestion of ensuring or soliciting public involvement.

According to Doug Carstens, a lawyer suing the City on behalf of an Inglewood community group, the conversation between Mr. Hunter and Mr. Jones proves the City breached a 1953 California transparency law known as the Brown Act.

In a March 15 letter to Jackie Lacey, the Los Angeles County District Attorney, Carstens requested the office investigate Brown Act violations.

“The violations of the Brown Act were so egregious it didn’t seem like we could just let them go,” he said in a phone interview. “It seemed like something the DA should be involved in.”

“One of the core principles of the Brown Act is that the public has a right to hear and discuss anything that a legislative body subject to the Brown Act is going to discuss … If the goal here was to make sure the public didn’t know what they were actually going to talk about … that’s contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Brown Act.” – David Snyder, First Amendment Coalition

Among other provisions, the Brown Act requires city meeting agenda descriptions to “give the public a fair chance to participate … by providing the public with more than mere clues from which they must then guess or surmise the essential nature of the business to be considered by a local agency.” Carstens argues Inglewood willfully obfuscated the purpose of the June 15 2017 meeting to ensure as little public scrutiny as possible.

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition who has pursued many Brown Act suits, says there’s a strong case to be made.

“The Brown Act is clear in that agenda items have to be described in a way that is both accurate and not misleading,” he told me by phone. “The fact that this agenda item doesn’t mention anything about the NBA, or an arena, or the Clippers, or any of the [items] that are actually at issue here makes it misleading.”

It’s not the first time Inglewood has come under scrutiny related to the Brown Act. In fact, the same DA who received Mr. Carstens allegations penned a 2013 letter to the Inglewood City Council informing the Council that Mayor Butts had violated the Brown Act by unlawfully removing members of the public from council meetings simply for disagreeing with the Mayor’s opinions.

Despite a documented history of Brown Act violations by the Inglewood city government, Mr. Snyder believes it’s unlikely the District Attorney’s office will follow through with any significant action.

“I don’t know of a single instance where a DA has brought charges based on the Brown Act,” he said. “It is authorized under the law, but to my knowledge it’s never happened.”

Mr. Snyder said the letter to the DA may just be a form of “saber-rattling.”

For his part, Mr. Carstens said he simply hopes the DA will provide “accountability” in whatever form they deem most appropriate.

Beyond criminal proceedings, Inglewood could be held accountable in civil court. But since a Brown Act suit must be brought within 90 days of the alleged violation, it seems to be too late for such a case.

Regardless, Mr. Snyder believes the letter is purposeful and important.

“It’s good to bring to the public’s attention Brown Act violations,” he said. “Even after the window for civil litigation has passed that doesn’t mean the window for criticizing the city government has passed.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the First Amendment Coalition executive director as Dan Snyder. His name is David Snyder.*