Court wants eminent domain talks in public: San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune, 11.23/05

By Martin Stolz

Downtown San Diego's redevelopment arm can no longer conduct closed-door meetings to discuss eminent domain litigation, a California appeals court ruled yesterday.

Mel Shapiro, a Hillcrest resident and government watchdog, went to court in 2004 against the Centre City Development Corp. board over its practice of discussing eminent domain in private meetings.

The board advises the City Council on downtown redevelopment and planning. The council, sitting as the San Diego Redevelopment Agency, has final say on redevelopment matters.

Shapiro argued that the board's private meetings with the council's lawyers violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law.

Superior Court Judge Richard E.L. Strauss ruled against Shapiro, finding that the board acts on behalf of the council.

The San Diego-based 4th District Court of Appeal reversed Strauss yesterday, saying the board "may not meet in closed session" to discuss the redevelopment agency's eminent domain lawsuits.

Eminent domain is the government's power to take private property for public uses.

The unanimous conclusion of the three-judge appeals panel is included in its published decision, so it can be cited as precedent in California cities with similar development corporations.

The panel said, "We are constrained by the plain language of the Brown Act to conclude that CCDC may not meet in closed session with the agency's counsel to discuss pending litigation to which CCDC is not a party."

Peter Hall, president of the Centre City Development Corp., said his board "is going to want to discuss this with counsel before we have any formal reaction or position about what it means to us."

City Attorney Michael Aguirre called the ruling "a wonderful advancement of the public's right to know."

Too many of San Diego's commissions and agencies "have forgotten that they are public agencies, and they have to conduct their business in public," he said.

Shapiro, 78, sent out an e-mail proclaiming: "I WON!"

Shapiro successfully sued City Council in 2002 for meeting illegally in private.

San Diego Union-Tribune: www.signonsandiego.com