Quick Take:

By convening private meetings to make appointments and nominations to influential state and regional boards, a committee of Santa Cruz County mayors, accompanied by city and county government executives, was found to have been violating state law for more than 20 years. In its first public meeting in at least decades, the City Selection Committee accepted blame and apologized to the public.

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A committee of Santa Cruz County mayors tasked with making appointments and nominations to public boards and commissions said Tuesday it owed the public an apology after Lookout discovered that the group had been operating outside of state law for decades.

In its first public meeting in more than 20 years, held by videoconference, the City Selection Committee — made up the sitting mayors in Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Capitola and Scotts Valley — voted to advance Capitola City Councilmember Yvette Brooks as its sole nominee to fill a vacancy on the highly influential California Coastal Commission. The committee had originally nominated Brooks, County Board of Supervisors Chair Zach Friend and Santa Cruz Mayor Fred Keeley during a private meeting on Jan. 27 without involving or notifying the public. However, the nominations were invalidated because the meeting was deemed illegal.

During its Tuesday revote, the committee declined to renominate Friend. Keeley pulled his name from the nominations list, saying he was no longer interested in the position. The Santa Cruz mayor also stepped away from an earlier commitment to serve as the committee’s vice chair.

Tuesday’s public meeting was a dramatic reversal for the state-mandated committee. Lookout reported earlier Tuesday that the county and this group of mayors had been illegally making appointments and nominations in private meetings — often held at restaurants — for more than 20 years. One legal expert has called the longstanding practice an “outrageous transparency violation.”

Keeley, who appeared visibly upset throughout the meeting, said it was “stunning” that the committee had been operating outside of the law for so long. He said the committee owed the public “a very big apology.”

The push to nominate representatives from Santa Cruz County for the Coastal Commission began Jan. 17, when California State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon sent a letter directly to Friend asking the county to submit local nominations to fill a Central Coast-based vacancy by March 3.

Ten days later, the county’s top executive, Carlos Palacios, convened a private meeting of the mayors from Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Scotts Valley and Capitola to advance Friend, Brooks and Keeley as the county’s nominees and send the list to Rendon.

Rendon’s Jan. 17 letter to Friend specifically requested at least one city council member and one county supervisor be nominated from Santa Cruz County. The City Selection Committee’s decision to leave Friend off the list pushes new interest to the board of supervisors meeting Feb. 28 — the final meeting before Rendon’s March 3 deadline — when supervisors will need to nominate one of their own to accompany Brooks on Santa Cruz County’s official list of Coastal Commission nominees.

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“The board of supervisors mishandled this issue. If they want to forward a nomination [to the speaker] on Feb. 28, they can do that, they don’t need us,” Keeley said.

Friend told Lookout after the meeting Tuesday that he is unsure if he will seek a nomination through the board of supervisors. District 3 Supervisor Justin Cummings has said he wants to be nominated, and Friend said he would support him.

“What matters most to me is having a good set of local candidates that the Speaker can consider so that our county can increase our chances at having a local voice selected,” Friend said via email. “I would absolutely support [Cummings] and hope that any board member that puts forward a name gets unanimous support.”

Palacios said when he inherited the committee upon becoming county administrative officer in 2016, he was told by the outgoing county administrative officer that the City Selection Committee did not fall under the Brown Act’s rules for public meetings. Palacios accepted some of the blame, saying he should have confirmed with legal counsel.

Ahead of Tuesday’s revote, Palacios assured the mayors and everyone on the call that the meeting had been vetted by the county’s legal counsel and the committee was abiding by the law.

In addition to the meetings being publicly noticed, Palacios said they would no longer be held at restaurants around the county since the public would now need the opportunity to attend and participate. He said the meetings would be held at city halls or other public facilities among the four cities on a rotating basis.

Keeley said he wouldn’t be attending any meeting not held in a public facility.

“I think this is what people far too often think the government does — meet in places and in ways without public participation,” Keeley said. “I think we owe the public an apology for that. This is not exactly some little hiccup.”

During the public comment portion of the Tuesday meeting, the committee received harsh criticism for the years of meetings kept from the public. One caller, who went by only Sabina, said she planned on filing a formal complaint.

“This shows me that you were not taking this seriously,” the caller said. “I know a lot of people don’t watch these meetings and a lot of people don’t care about these meetings, but I do. I’m a citizen, and I have a right to know.”

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of discussions Santa Cruz County Chief Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios had in 2016 about whether the City Selection Committee was subject to the Brown Act. He sought advice from the county’s administrator at the time, not a legal opinion from the county’s counsel.

Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...