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Late last year, Discover Pacific Beach got rapped by the city auditor for violating the state’s open-meetings law. In May, the San Diego City Council enacted transparency reforms upon Discover PB and its other business improvement districts after being troubled by their lack of compliance.
Now, Discover PB is facing more open-meeting troubles.
On June 5, the Pacific Beach business district, Discover Pacific Beach, awarded a $4,000 bonus to its executive director, Sara Berns, in a meeting that wasn’t open to the public.
The Ralph M. Brown Act requires public agencies to address and approve employee compensation, including bonuses, in public meetings.
It also forces them to list the position of the employee being reviewed in closed session on its agenda. Discover PB only listed that an employee review was to occur in closed session, but didn’t include Berns’ name or title.
The business districts use assessments from local businesses in geographically-specific areas, like Grand and Garnet Avenues in Pacific Beach, to better the area. The city collects these assessments annually and then directly pays business districts monthly. As part of their contracts with the city, each business district is required to abide by open government laws including the Brown Act.
Discover PB’s no stranger to the requirements of the Brown Act. Late last year, the city auditor issued a report that revealed multiple violations of the act by Discover PB, including a failure to properly describe on its agendas what was being discussed at board meetings.
The report states that district staff had “recently attended two Brown Act training sessions,” and “they will continue to be even more diligent in complying with the Brown Act requirements.”
But it seems Discover PB may not have been diligent enough when handling Berns’ bonus. Berns herself called the violation an “inadvertent mistake.”
She wrote that “no action to implement the board’s [vote to approve Berns’s bonus] has been taken” since notice of the problem was sent to the business district and its board on July 9 by former board member Diane Faulds, a business owner in Pacific Beach.
But Discover PB had already paid Berns the $4,000 prior to receiving Fauld’s notice.
On Aug. 7, Discover PB’s board reconsidered the issue and voted unanimously, and legally, to approve the bonus.
Board president Eric Lingenfelder said the nonprofit is run by a small group of volunteer staff that does its best to run the organization in a transparent manner.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent of what we do, we do spot on,” he said at the meeting. “But we do miss things occasionally.”
During the May 15 City Council meeting, Lingenfelder, who oversees two bars recently found to be underreporting employees on business tax licenses, said Discover PB was currently undergoing Brown Act training.
“Well, did they open their ears?” said Donna Frye, a former San Diego city councilwoman and current board member of open-government advocates Californians Aware.
Discover PB board member Robert Cowen wasn’t present at the Aug. 7 meeting but asked that the board consider hiring an attorney at a cost of $6,000 per year to sit in on all board meetings to make sure the group is abiding by the Brown Act.
Lingenfelder said it wasn’t necessary.
“We’ve become fairly proficient in the Brown Act,” he said. “The city realizes that we’re not trying to scoot anything under the run. There have been no egregious mistakes.”
Besides, he said, Faulds, the former board member who flagged the transparency problem, “is doing a good job for free.”
Sandy Coronilla is a freelance journalist and contributor to Voice of San Diego. You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.519.6069.