Due to what is being characterized as an inadvertent Brown Act violation, the Menlo Park City Council could postpone its scheduled discussion about the library system, including the proposal to rebuild the main library, until early 2019, according to a report from City Attorney Bill McClure.
A Brown Act violation can occur when a majority of members of a legislative body, in this case, three or more City Council members, communicate in any way to discuss, deliberate about, or take action on a matter outside of a meeting for which the public has been given proper notice.
According to McClure, the violation occurred when Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, who is on a subcommittee with Councilman Rich Cline focused on library matters, and Mayor Peter Ohtaki had a conversation during the Aug. 16 downtown block party.
According to Ohtaki, he and Keith exchanged brief pleasantries, and Keith made a comment that Ohtaki interpreted as encouragement to vote for the library, before he went to track down his kids to feed them dinner. "But we didn't talk about which library," he added. "That was it."
Ohtaki told The Almanac he responded to Keith's comment by saying something along the lines of "It's going to be a very difficult vote." He added, "That's my way of saying I haven't decided yet."
Keith said in an interview, "I made a comment that I hoped he would support the library. It was a relatively innocuous statement. I would not have said it if I thought it was a violation."
"I wasn't looking for any consensus, and there was no consensus," she added. "I learned something from the situation ... and I won't make such a comment in the future."
Later, Vice Mayor Ray Mueller reportedly contacted Ohtaki to talk about the library, but Ohtaki said he couldn't talk about it because he'd already talked about it, albeit briefly, with Keith. When Ohtaki was reminded that Keith is on the library subcommittee and may have discussed the matter with Cline, he then told the city attorney what had happened.
"My inadvertent mistake was forgetting which committee council member Keith was on," Ohtaki said. "This is one of the most complicated parts of the Brown Act. ... There are over 30 committees that we as council members collectively serve on."
Keith told The Almanac Aug. 24 that she and Cline had not discussed the library recently. Both attended a recent public meeting to learn more about the Hayward library, she said, but they didn't talk about it. She and Cline told The Almanac the last time they met as a subcommittee was Monday, Aug. 13. Since they are on a subcommittee, they are permitted to discuss the matter as often as needed, so long as other council members are not part of those discussions.
McClure asked that the City Council meeting be canceled so he would have time to investigate the situation. Because no action was taken, no remedy to the violation is required beyond alerting the public about what had happened.
The council had been scheduled to discuss and potentially approve funds to move forward with developing a schematic design for a new main library, choosing a site for it – staff has recommended building it along Laurel Street rather than its current Alma Street location – and conducting a space needs study for the Belle Haven branch library.
The council previously set aside $1 million for work on improvements to the city's libraries.
Staff has recommended that the matter be rescheduled for early 2019 because the city's library director and assistant public works director positions are now vacant, there are a limited number of remaining meetings left in the year, and there will be at least one new council member following the November election.
Over the past week, the City Council has received about 15 emails expressing support for including affordable housing as part of a new main library construction project, and one opposed to the idea.