By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Opponents of the proposed Dutra asphalt plant south of Petaluma plan to press their right to speak against the controversial project at the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday despite a county determination that the item would be closed to public comment.
Opponents say a state open-meeting law dictates that public comment be allowed on the matter. Supervisors are set to formally vote on the Dutra plant, a proposal they backed Oct. 12 in a 3-2 preliminary vote.
Because that vote was preceded by a full public hearing, including more than three hours of public testimony, county officials said today’s meeting can be limited to board deliberation on the project prior to the vote.
But opponents said that decision runs afoul of the Brown Act, which requires that government bodies such as the Board of Supervisors allow public comment on any item under their consideration.
“If they’re foolish enough to try and shut down public comment, let’s just say it doesn’t look good in front of a judge,” said David Keller of the Petaluma River Council.
County legal officials defended their decision Monday.
“Our position is there has been a full and fair public hearing and the board has taken a straw vote,” said David Hurst, chief deputy county counsel.
Hurst said the board and other government bodies regularly rely on the same legal interpretation to formalize preliminary decisions made in conjunction with previous public hearings.
“We take a different view” from opponents, he said.
California open-government expert Terry Francke said opponents are right to push their case for allowing public comment Tuesday.
Francke, general counsel of the nonprofit Californians Aware, said state laws covering public hearings are not to be confused with the Brown Act, which protects public participation at government meetings.
“The public hearing may be closed but not the people’s right to address the board,” Francke said. Regardless of the hearing’s closure, he said, “the one thing the Board of Supervisors can’t do at this point is say ‘no public comment.’ You’ve got to allow people to speak.”
Hurst, the chief deputy county counsel, said board Chairwoman Valerie Brown could allow public comment on the item.
Brown and Supervisor Shirlee Zane voted against the asphalt plant in October. She could not be reached by phone Monday.
The Dutra asphalt plant is slated for 37 acres along the Petaluma River just beyond the Petaluma city boundary. In the works for five years now, it would have an annual production capacity of 570,425 tons of asphalt and rock material.
The item is one of several land use matters scheduled for a 2:10 p.m. time slot on Tuesday.