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Group texts show Downey City Council routinely violates California’s open meeting laws

By most accounts, Downey City Council is a sinking ship: Mayor Blanca Pacheco has faced allegations of corruption by her own Council colleague Claudia Frometa. Meanwhile, Downey’s top executives, its City Manager and Attorney, have resigned. Simultaneously, residents are mounting a second attempt to recall Mayor Pro Tem Catherine Alvarez, and speakers at Council meetings have also called for Council Member Mario Trujillo to face his own recall.

In this unstable context, the Council is considering appointing a replacement for Sean Ashton, who abruptly resigned after one of our reporters videoed and released proof of Ashton, Frometa, and Pacheco violating the Brown Act—California’s “open meeting” law. Rumors have been circling that Ashton resigned because of the content and context of the video.

Now, Political Life is in receipt of new evidence of Brown Act violations by the Downey City Council. The records we were given to us by a Downey resident ("Ana"), who filed a public records request of the City Manager’s mobile phone. The records show Downey’s Council Members and the City Manager discussing City business in a private group chat. Importantly, the City Attorney was not in the chat, but she resigned one week after the records were released to Ana on April 13th, 2022.

While the City did not provide our source with a complete record, the available evidence shows that Downey City Council and the City Manager are in the habit of meeting illegally, in secret, outside a duly noticed public meeting. The implication is that the Council is very comfortable violating the Brown Act, and likely does so on a routine basis.

The Brown Act: California Peoples’ first line of defense against local corruption

Established in 1953, California’s Brown Act arises from the experiences of San Francisco residents who suspected and sometimes observed their local elected officials meeting in secret to discuss or decide important public matters. As a result, the Brown Act prohibits meetings of the quorum (majority) of a legislative body, such as City Councils and School Boards.

Because Downey City Council is a legislative body, a majority of its members cannot lawfully meet as a quorum, except for narrow exceptions, such as conferences and social events. What is explicitly prohibited is a meeting of a quorum to “hear, discuss, deliberate, or decide” on matters within the jurisdiction of their legislative body.

Given the rapid advance of technology, the Legislature and the Courts have expanded the Brown Act to include electronic communication. A 2021 briefing by the League of California Cities explicitly notes that the Brown Act prohibits “technological contacts (such as fax, email, text message, telephone, or social media)” of “any kind, among a majority of members of a legislative body.”

Downey’s most recent Brown Act violations: Texts between Council and Manager

Ana provided us with screenshot records of texting communications emerging from City Manager Gilbert Livas’s mobile phone. She filed her request on February 25th, 2022, for "copies of any and all group text message records involving City Manager Livas, Mayor Pacheco, Pro Tem Mayor Ashton, and councilmembers Claudia Frometa, Catherine Alvarez, and Mario Trujillo."

Only one of the screenshots (IMG_1672.PNG) has a date, February 8th, and it shows 1) the group text members (the Council Members’ initials), 2) Mayor Pacheco’s full name, image, and acknowledgement to receiving information, 3) Livas initiating a communication to the Council related to face masks.

A second screenshot (IMG_1674.PNG) shows that Pacheco and Alvarez responded to Livas’ communication. Finally, a third screenshot (IMG_1671.PNG) shows “MT” responding to a communication by saying “Congrats”, and Claudia Frometa writing a paragraph that includes praise for the City Manager and Finance Director. It is not clear what Livas had said that elicited Frometa's praise.

Downey City Council members discussing City business with City Manager in private group chat.

The implications of the records

It is important to note that the Brown Act permits “individual contacts,” meaning that Livas could have legally communicated with each Council Member regarding his updates. But the inclusion of the entire Council into a group text creates a meeting situation wherein a majority of the Council members can confirm their attendance and participation at the meeting by responding and adding to the conversation—which they did.

In the words of a Brown Act training delivered by County Attorneys, "The central rule is that a majority shouldn't be discussing the body's business outside of an open and noticed meeting. It's important to note that the body doesn't have to take action for something to be a meeting. The simple exchange of information or discussion of views, as long as the topic is something within the body's jurisdiction, is enough."

It is also noteworthy that while other Council Members gave short statements in response to Livas’ communications, Frometa discussed City business at length. If the interactions shown in the texts had occurred in person, the interaction would have clearly constituted a meeting, since a majority of the Council would have been at the same time and place to “hear, discuss, deliberate, or decide” on City business—Livas’ updates on masks and Frometa’s views on the performance of the Manager and Finance Director.

Community members planning movement against Council Members

In our discussion with Ana, she noted that many community members now believe “the entire Council is totally corrupt.” She voiced special concern that since two of the Council Members are Attorneys (Pacheco and Trujillo), they may use their connections in the legal world to avoid prosecution.

Another Downey community resident, who introduced us to Ana but who chose to remain anonymous, said “These people on the Council have been violating laws for so long. They are doing it even now, having secret meetings about the next City Council Member, Manager, and Attorney.”

Ana added, “We’ve been too trusting of the Council. But none of them can be trusted. We need a new Council,” she said.

Political Life is a collective of citizen-journalists in Southeast Los Angeles County

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