California Court Rules National City Likely Violated Open Meetings Law

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 14, 2011

Arlington, Va.—A California Superior Court judge ruled on Friday that the city of National City may not use documents the city created in violation of California’s Open Meetings Law as a basis for finding property blighted. The judge’s injunction against the city is a victory for property rights advocates, because without a finding of physical blight National City cannot use eminent domain in its ongoing redevelopment efforts.

The case, Nuñez v. City of National City, concerns a resolution passed by the National City Planning Commission that recommended new land-use laws for the city. The new laws, which were later adopted by the city council, are important because, among other things, if a small business is incompatible with them, the city can use such incompatibility as evidence that the property is suffering from “physical blight” and the city may then condemn it and transfer it to a private entity.

However, when the Planning Commission approved these proposed new laws, it did not provide proper notice that they were on the agenda of that meeting, which was required under California’s open-public-meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act. The failure to provide adequate notice left many unaware that this significant change was occurring and deprived them of the opportunity to comment on, and protest, the new laws.

“In order for people to be able to protect themselves from eminent domain abuse, it is absolutely vital that they be given proper notice of decisions that will affect them and their property,” said attorney Bill Maurer from the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represents the plaintiffs, Victor Nuñez and the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC). “This is what the Brown Act demands and what the city failed to do here.”

Under the Brown Act, local legislative bodies are required to post an agenda with a brief description of each item of business they plan to discuss and act on at any meeting. Here, National City tried to use one shorthand reference to cover ten separate major new planning, land-use, and zoning documents. In granting the injunction, the court found that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that National City violated the agenda requirement of the Brown Act. The court noted that the documents plaintiffs challenged “have major effects . . . which may profoundly affect claims of blighting conditions,” and that faithful compliance with the Brown Act “is a matter of overriding public importance.”

Plaintiff Victor Nuñez, the Vice President of CYAC, said, “The CYAC and the other businesses in National City need to make sure they are protected against future eminent domain and redevelopment abuse. Given how important these documents were, the Planning Commission should have made sure that there was widespread and clear notice. The court’s injunction will protect the CYAC and others until the court can issue its final ruling.”

This is not the only dispute between CYAC and the city. In March, 2011, the CYAC secured a ruling that the city had violated the state redevelopment laws, the California Public Records Act, and federal due-process protections when it reauthorized eminent domain over a large area of its downtown. Richard M. Segal, Brian D. Martin, and Nathaniel R. Smith of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP continue to provide skillful local counsel assistance to the CYAC in this case, as they did in CYAC’s case challenging National City’s blight designation.

The injunction will remain in place until a trial on the merits, currently scheduled for January 2012, can occur.