DA Concludes Inglewood Violated Brown Act Over Public Disclosure of Clippers Arena

The Inglewood City Council violated state public meeting disclosure laws when it made “concerted efforts” to limit information released to the community while secretly negotiating an agreement to build an arena for the Los Angeles Clippers, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has concluded.

In a letter to the Inglewood City Council earlier this month, District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s Public Integrity Unit concluded that a vague meeting agenda item description that included no information about the Clippers basketball team, the stadium or the negotiations “did violate the (Ralph M. Brown) Act.”

“It should be noted that the deficiency of the agenda description appears to have been part of concerted efforts between representatives of the city and the Murphy’s Bowl LLC to limit the notice given to the public,” Deputy District Attorney Bjorn Dodd wrote in the letter dated May 17. “The generic name of Murphy’s Bowl LLC was used intentionally to obfuscate the identity of the proposed project and those associated with it.”

In March 2018, SoCal Connected obtained and reported court documents released during a lawsuit filed against the city by Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the Forum, revealed how the arena was kept furtive.

Inglewood Mayor James Butts on Wednesday said city officials don’t agree they committed a Brown Act violation for the June 15, 2017 special council meeting, and questioned why the District Attorney’s Office’s letter was released two later, especially at a time when city officials are working to resolve a lawsuit filed against the city by The Madison Square Garden Co., which owns the Forum, and is against building a rival new arena nearby.

Butts said that although the council refutes that it violated the act, the body followed the rules and held another public meeting that “would cure any violation if there was one.”

“Why was this letter written two years later, just before our motion for summary judgment with MSG,” Butts said. “When has there ever been a Brown Act letter written two years later?”

Asked if he believed the DA’s office was taking sides in MSG’s lawsuit, Butts suggested a reporter investigate why the letter was just released. “We are dumbfounded,” the mayor said.

Other than the letter, the District Attorney’s Office said it had no further comment.

MSG issued a statement that said the District Attorney “confirms what Inglewood residents have known for years: that the city and the Clippers worked behind closed doors to reach their deal on a new arena.”

“These 'concerted efforts' to deceive the public fly in the face of transparency and the principles of good government, and will be fully exposed in the trial of our lawsuit,” the statement said.

Shortly after Inglewood officials approved the exclusive negotiating agreement with Murphy’s Bowl LLC, a community group known as the Inglewood Residents Against Taking and Eviction, or IRATE, sued the city, claiming officials violated the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Attorney Doug Carstens wrote to District Attorney Jackie Lacey, asking her office to investigate the city for intentional Brown Act violations.

CEQA requires local and state agencies to do environmental reviews before approving certain projects. The Brown Act guarantees the public’s right to attend meetings and requires information about what’s going to be addressed to be made public well in advance on agendas posted 72 hours in advance of regular meetings, and 24 hours in advance of special meetings.

“Evidence reveals that the matter was set for a special meeting rather than a regular meeting to reduce the time required to give public notice,” Dodd wrote.

Dodd added in his letter that the information about the “location and scope of the contemplated development project,” was notably omitted from the agenda item, despite the fact the project required building on city-owned land and private property. 

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Dodd wrote that using the name Murphy’s Bowl and scheduling a special meeting were not violations “per se” of the Brown act, but “they indicated concerted efforts to act contrary to the spirit of the Brown Act.”

“Although the evidence is not sufficient to prove that any member of the city council participated in these efforts to obfuscate, the city council bears the ultimate responsibility to comply with the Brown Act,” Dodd wrote.

In an email from Chris Hunter, an attorney negotiating the project, to Inglewood attorney Royce Jones, Hunter asked if the agreement was required to be part of the city council’s public agenda or could be downloaded “shortly before the meeting.” Jones wrote that the law required it to be disclosed, but  “that is why we elected to just post 24 hours versus the normal 72 hours.”

Hunter added that the agenda item would tell residents that the deal was with Murphy’s Bowl LLC, an obscure company name. Court documents showed Murphy’s Bowl LLC had only one member: Steve Ballmer, the multi-billionaire owner of the Clippers.

In its lawsuit to stop the project, MSG also characterized the meetings as “secret.”  MSG alleges city officials, Butts and the city council violated a contractual agreement involving a terminated parking lot lease agreement.

The District Attorney’s Office concluded that violations related to the agenda description could render the city council’s action void, but no action would be taken “because the complaint was received after the time limits to remedy the violation.”

“Nonetheless, we sincerely hope that this letter will assist the city council in ensuring that such violations will not recur in the future,” Dodd wrote.

Butts declined to discuss whether a Clippers arena will be built, but said, “It's on track to finish the negotiations agreement.”

Carstens said the DA’s office “got it right” that there was a concerted effort to keep the arena secret. The lengthy investigation, he said, showed investigators took it seriously and were very careful to get the facts.

“It’s better late than never,” Carstens said. “It’s vindication. This is something we thought  violated at the time. I guess the wheels of the district attorney turn slowly but surely.”

This article was updated with a statement from The Madison Square Garden Co. at 5:28 PM.

Top Image: Ted Soqui/Corbis/Getty Images​

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