Legal Suit by Board Member Forces Peninsula Planners to Cancel June Meeting

by on June 24, 2019 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

A very clear demonstration of how the legal system can be used to intimidate people, especially people who have had little exposure to the system, was apparent in the cancelled Peninsula Community Planning Board (PCPB) meeting last Thursday, June 20.  A board member filed a lawsuit naming the PCPB and the City in an alleged violation of his right to free speech.  Here is what the PCPB posted on its website:

Due to the PCPB named as defendant in a Civil Rights Action case, Board and committee meetings may be adjourned until further notice. Please check the committee and board pages to see if adjournments have been posted. We apologize for any inconvenience and hope to be back to normal operations soon.

Board member Don Sevrens presented the board – and the audience – with copies of his complaint during the May meeting just before the board was to discuss a complaint against Sevrens for violations of the PCPB by-laws.

One of the violations was for publishing and promoting a slate of candidates for the March election, which is prohibited by the by-laws and by Council Policy 600-24, the document upon which all planning board by-law are based.  This was the second year that Sevrens did this and his defense of his actions, that directly violate the by-laws, was that he had a right to freedom of speech.  He accused everyone of violating his constitutional rights.

The interesting thing is that Sevrens filed his suit before the PCPB even discussed the complaint about him; the PCPB had taken no action and still has taken no action.  So, the lawsuit was filed about something that had not occurred.  This action was not “ripe” as it is referred to by attorneys, nothing had happened.  Unfortunately, the legal threat was enough to cause the PCPB to postpone a discussion of the complaint against Sevrens until this month when they decided to cease all PCPB business.

The idea of being tangled up in any legal proceeding is very scary to many people.  To others, who have experience with the legal system, not so much.  The lawsuit is toothless at this time because the alleged violation of Sevrens’s right to free speech has not occurred – no one is in any legal jeopardy.  In fact, the PCPB will probably have to drop that one part of the complaint against Sevrens.  The same complaint was filed against board member Margaret Virissimo who violated the slate rule for the third year in a row and the PCPB elected to do nothing making it pretty hard to move against Sevrens for the same thing.

The shame of this is that 99.9% of the PCPB’s business has nothing to do with Sevrens so business could have continued while this is being worked out.  This is not intended to be a criticism of the PCPB leadership, just a commentary on how people react to the legal system and how it can be used to silence people.

There is an attorney who posts often on Nextdoor who has used the system to intimidate posters who disagree with him and it works.  It works because the law is a specialized area of knowledge that most people have no familiarity with.  That is when a person needs to find someone who does understand and get an explanation.

For now, the next step is up to the city.  The board members are indemnified by the city for their work on the PCPB, so the city has to defend itself and defend the PCPB.  Sevrens’ suit was overkill.  The PCPB by-laws contain the prohibition about creating and promoting slates because it was required by the city, all of the planning boards had to include this language in their by-laws.

If anything, the issue is the city’s to deal with not the PCPB’s.  But, as anyone who has ever been around the law can affirm, lawsuits often just name anyone within five square miles who might have any knowledge, if nothing more than just having read a headline or expressed an opinion to a neighbor.

If Sevrens really wanted to honestly challenge the slate prohibition, a far less disruptive approach would have been to ask the city attorney for an opinion on that language in Council Policy 600-24.  It will be interesting to see how the city reacts.  While freedom of speech is a hallowed right, there are many instances where it is constrained based on a person’s participation in organizations with rules.

Sevrens knew about this part of the by-laws and could have challenged it at any time but decided to do so in a dramatic gesture.  First, he ignored the by-laws, then he filed the suit. The purpose was clear and so far, Sevrens has succeeded.  But, the public complaints against Sevrens, filed by this reporter and by other members of the public, contain other allegations that have nothing to do with free speech.  Hopefully, the PCPB will take up those issues after this is resolved.

 

 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Geoff Page June 25, 2019 at 9:31 am

A minor issue with the headline. The PCPB wasn’t “forced” to cancel the meeting, it caused them to “decide” not to hold the meeting. The meeting could easily have gone forward as long as they did not discuss Sevrens or the complaint against him.

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Avatar korla eaquinta June 25, 2019 at 6:55 pm

Please note this lawsuit asks for damages of $100,000 plus attorney fees.

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Avatar Geoff Page June 25, 2019 at 7:25 pm

Yes, that is what the suit says, Korla, I did cover that in the article I did about the May meeting in The Rag. That is part of the “scare” of a lawsuit. In fact, Sevrens has not suffered any damages of any kind, that figure was put in there to further intimidate people and is based on nothing. Many lawsuits do not even name an amount stating that it will be decided in the future. As for attorney’s fees, it would take an attorney to tell us if those fees are even recoverable in a suit like this, they are not always. Lawyers write these complaints as extreme advocates for their clients and these documents are usually full of hyperbole and scary language. To top it all off, the PCPB has not done anything, they did not discuss the complaint so there is nothing to trigger this action.

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