San Jose's mayor and City Council members flouted state open meeting laws at least three times this year, according to city officials.
Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilwoman Rose Herrera violated the Brown Act by engaging in policy discussions about rent control, taxi regulations and a state minimum wage bill outside of public meetings.
Both acknowledged the violations in a Mercury News report, which has raised concerns about back room deals at City Hall.
"In each case, we were the ones who outed ourselves, we policed ourselves," Liccardo told San Jose Inside, adding that the mistakes were unintentional. "Nothing was delayed in either case."
Liccardo said his staffers caught the errors after realizing that drafts of certain Rules and Open Government Committee memos being circulated by email had amassed more signatures than allowed in the Brown Act.
Because the Rules Committee is made up of five members, no more than two of them can discuss anything in advance of the meeting without breaking the law. The Brown Act prevents back room deals by making it illegal for the majority of an elected body to talk about policy matters in private.
"In each case, we identified that there were more signatures on the memo than were allowed in the Brown Act," Liccardo said. "We talked to the city attorney and then we assured that the committee would not make a decision on that matter so that there would be no concern or allegation that anything untoward would take place."
Nothing got delayed, Liccardo added. Rather, the items about taxi rules, rent control and a state minimum wage hike bypassed the Rules Committee and went straight to the council for discussion.
Still, the violations could undermine public trust and mar the reputation of a city that has tried to usher in greater transparency after a bribery scandal put San Jose in the national spotlight. Former Mayor Ron Gonzales came under scrutiny when prosecutors accused him of brokering a secret deal as political payback with a trash-hauling company in 2000. A judge eventually dropped the charges.
A Vietnamese-American neighborhood group accused the city of breaking Brown Act rules in a lawsuit filed in 2007. The case awaits new trial date after an appellate judge overturned a Santa Clara County Superior Court ruling in favor of the city.
Liccardo said the city will take precautions to prevent future missteps. More than three would indicate a pattern or lack of discipline and possibly warrant an investigation, city officials said.
"We take responsibility," he said. "We made a mistake in how those memos were circulated. We're rethinking the process now. We'll make sure that this doesn't happen going forward."