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Investigation Focuses On Meeting Law Allegations

POSTED March 30, 2011 1:11 a.m.

Oakdale City Council members Tom Dunlop and Mike Brennan have been appointed by their peers to form an ad hoc committee for the purpose of investigating allegations of Brown Act violations by members of the Business Improvement District (BID) commission.

The Edmund G. Brown Act states that meetings of public bodies must be “open and public” and actions may not be secret. A ‘meeting’ is any gathering of a majority of the members of a covered board to hear, discuss, or deliberate on matters within the agency or board’s jurisdiction. The BID falls within this definition.

In a letter to City Manager Steve Hallam sent on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, Board President Doug Heath claimed Tourism Business Improvement District board member Virginia Camacho called an unauthorized meeting on March 2 with “a quorum of ‘select’ members of the BID commission” for the purpose of attacking and trying to remove the chamber’s CEO, Mary Guardiola, from the board. The meeting included Camacho, committee member Bill Houk and a few local hotel owners. The BID consists of three lodging representatives and four at-large members appointed by the council.

The city council appointed Camacho and Houk to the BID on Feb. 22, 2011 from recommendations by Mayor Pat Paul and councilman Jason Howard.

In the letter, Heath declared, “Not all members of the BID Commission were called, no agenda was made available, no reason for the meeting was given and to our knowledge, no public posting of this meeting occurred.”

When councilman Tom Dunlop brought up the letter and possible violations at the Monday, March 21 city council meeting, Mayor Paul asked Heath who was present to address the council on the matter. Heath requested that the council investigate the incident, with Paul and Howard excluding themselves due to their prior nominations of Camacho and Houk.

According to Paul, who had contacted Camacho and Houk, the meeting to her knowledge only consisted of a “meet and greet” with several local hotel owners.

City Attorney Tom Hallinan told council members if the assembly was purely social, it did not violate the requirements set forth in the Brown Act.

“We need to get to the bottom of this,” said Dunlop. “I’m very troubled by the way the events fall.”

In his address, Heath stated that during the gathering Camacho expressed the need to remove Guardiola from the advisory board. Camacho reportedly made disparaging remarks about the chamber and the chamber’s management of BID funds.

In an interview, Camacho said that prior to her appointment she attended a BID meeting with Paul. She noticed the hotel operators asking Guardiola about the budget and marketing plan and “knew something was wrong.”

Camacho, who worked on Paul’s campaign, had previously informed Paul of her background in tourism bureaus and working with local chambers of commerce. Paul asked Camacho to interview for one of the at-large positions and was later appointed by the council.

“When we finally became official,” Camacho said, “I met with one of the hotel representatives who made calls for others to meet with me.”

Camacho said she called Houk and asked him to accompany her to the meeting. She said she didn’t inform Guardiola and Amy Erwin, the other at-large member, because she had already met them. Camacho informed Paul of the meeting and described it to her as a “meet and greet.”

During the get together, Camacho said she felt the others were not happy with Guardiola based on questions she was asked about by the lodging representatives of not being shown a marketing plan or budget. There were also concerns about the lack of electronic promotion of the city on the Internet.

“According to them, they hadn’t met with the chamber since 2008,” Camacho said. “There seemed like a big disconnect.”

Camacho questioned whether a member of the chamber of commerce should be on the BID due to a 2008 city resolution where the city’s transient tax is 7 percent going to the city with a 2 percent assessment going directly to the Chamber of Commerce.

Camacho said the hotel owners were not pleased with the assessment and told her, “They back-doored us.”

When Camacho finally reviewed the BID budget she criticized a $12,000 charge for a “press release program” and $20,000 spent for Cardoza Associates with no explanation.

“To be on the board and be on the receiving end of how the money was spent is a conflict,” Camacho said. “That’s a no-brainer.”

Camacho said she did not think Guardiola was qualified to be on the BID. She pointed out the resolution that stated the committee would be made of members of the community and believes that since Guardiola doesn’t live in Oakdale, she doesn’t qualify.

When she heard her get together was on for discussion at the March 21 council meeting, she was taken aback.

“I was totally surprised how this came about. There was no courtesy or inquiry of what they were hearing,” Camacho said. “You’d think the chamber of commerce would have a protocol. That’s tacky.”

Camacho said as an appointed committee member, she was not familiar with the Brown Act restrictions about discussing commission business.

Heath and Guardiola both declined to be interviewed while the city council looks into the matter.

The ad hoc committee looking into this incident will be made up of Dunlop and Brennan, City Attorney Hallinan, and two members selected from the community.

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