Ian Trowbridge, a local community activist, has filed a lawsuit against the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., claiming the agency violated the state public meetings law by agreeing in private to pay SEDC President Carolyn Y. Smith a $100,350 severance.
The agency’s board of directors voted in a closed session board meeting in July to terminate Smith and to pay the severance. That termination came after Smith was forced out in the midst of a scandal over more than $1 million in bonuses and extra compensation that she approved for herself and other SEDC employees over the last five years.
Trowbridge’s lawyer, Cory Briggs, argues that that the state’s public meetings law, known as the Brown Act, expressly forbids a public body from discussing or voting on a termination payment in a private meeting. Terry Francke, a California public meetings law expert, concurred with Briggs’ reading of the law. Briggs wrote SEDC a letter last week asking the agency to rectify the alleged violation.
A public agency cannot agree to pay out extra public money in a termination payment unless it does so in an open meeting, Briggs said. Smith’s termination agreement states that the severance package includes benefits “which Smith acknowledges includes sums she is not otherwise entitled to receive,” Briggs said, which means that the severance payment had to be discussed and agreed upon in public.
“Their own termination agreement admits that they’re giving her money that she’s not entitled to receive under her employment contract,” Briggs said. “That’s their own words, not mine.”
A statement faxed from SEDC to voiceofsandiego.org last in response to Briggs’ accusation stated that, “The action taken by the Board of Directors did not alter the amount of Ms. Smith’s salary and no other terms of her employment were modified by Board action.”
But, at the conclusion of the closed session part of the meeting, board Chairman Artie M. “Chip” Owen said the board had approved the payment, and SEDC has not explained how the board arrived at the severance sum.
“The board has unanimously — once again, those voting in closed session — has unanimously approved a payment of $100,350 at the time of [Smith’s] departure,” he said.
Briggs’ suit seeks to render the termination agreement null and void, and to force SEDC to comply with the Brown Act before drawing up a new agreement.