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COLAB won't admit press to annual fundraiser 

The Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) is expecting a sold-out crowd at its annual fundraiser March 30, but the press isn’t likely to be among those attendees.

Speaking with the New Times, SLO County COLAB Governemnt Affairs Director Mike Brown said the organization would not be allowing press into the event, despite the fact that three of the five members of the SLO County Board of Supervisors will be there.

Titled Celebrate Success–Reinforce Reform, the $120-per-person fundraiser at the Madonna Expo Center will feature cocktails, a filet mignon dinner, and an auction. A flier for the event also stated that SLO County Supervisors John Peschong, Debbie Arnold, and Lynn Compton would be in attendance.

Their presence raises questions about whether the event would be considered a quorum and subject to the state’s public meeting laws, also known as the Brown Act.

The Brown Act defines a public meeting as a gathering of the majority of members of a legislative body to meet and confer about public business, and that, with few exceptions, those meeting be open to the public. However, the law does make an exception for members attending “purely social or ceremonial” events, provided the members do not discuss among themselves business of a specific nature within their jurisdiction.

Whether the fundraiser would qualify as a purely social event isn’t clear-cut, according to attorney Shannon Roggin, whose firm, Brian Cave LLP, is the general counsel for the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition.

“It may be that if the fundraising event is purely a social or ceremonial occasion, and the county supervisors are attending as mere spectators, it would not be subject to the Brown Act,” Roggin wrote in an email response to questions from New Times. “However, if the county supervisors will participate in a discussion of the county’s goals (perhaps by giving a speech about the county’s objectives), it should be subject to the Brown Act.”

According to its website, COLAB of SLO County is a nonprofit organization that works to represent the interests of agriculture, business, and labor in local government. The organization’s weekly newsletters feature detailed analyses of the various agenda items slated to come before the board and lays out COLAB’s stance on them. Brown is a regular attendee of the board’s meetings and frequently offers public comment on many of the policies they vote on.

Speaking to New Times, Brown characterized the fundraiser as a “big social event” and said that an “abundance of caution” would be taken to avoid Brown Act issues arising from the three supervisors’ attendance.

“It’s going to be me talking and praising them,” he said. “They are not going to have the opportunity to interact in that way.”

Peschong, Compton, and Arnold are currently facing public criticism and two formal complaints over alleged violations of the Brown Act. The first complaint, filed after a March 7 meeting, alleged that the board made substantive changes to the county’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) strategy without properly agendizing the item as required by the law. The second complaint raised concerns that that Peschong, Arnold, and Compton engaged in “serial meetings”—where information is relayed from one elected official to another through a third party—also a violation of the Brown Act.

In response to the complaints, the board scheduled another vote on the SGMA at its April 4 meeting. The board will also decide whether to refer the second complaint to the SLO County District Attorney’s Office at the April 4 meeting.

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