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ORINDA -- Sue Severson kicked off her one-year mayoral term this week with a public apology for violating city council policy in sending emails concerning a highly disputed downtown development project rejected by the council in November.

Severson delivered the apology at Tuesday's City Council meeting, after the community group Orinda Watch obtained -- using a Public Records Act request -- emails that show Severson discussing a proposed preschool project with a developer, and with the city's planning commission chair in an informal meeting, before the commissions's consideration of the project.

Orinda Mayor Sue Severson. (Sherry LaVars/Bay Area News Group Archives)
Orinda Mayor Sue Severson. (Sherry LaVars/Bay Area News Group Archives)

In the March emails, Severson also suggested the developer "educate" two new planning commissioners about the preschool project, as state open meeting laws prevented her from communicating with them about it. Other emails obtained by the group between Severson, city staffers and a resident show the former vice mayor also inquired about the project application and its status and did not support the proposed project site, which has been suggested by community group OrindaVision as a possible location for an "upscale, market-rate, multifamily" residential development the group believes could help revive the city's downtown.

In addition to detailing her biases against the preschool project, Severson's emails were sent from her personal email address, despite council policy requiring officials use their city email addresses for city business. Severson recused herself from voting on the preschool project when it came before the council on Nov. 5, following an appeal of the planning commission approval.

Tuesday night, she called her actions "inadvertent" and said they didn't affect the outcome of the council vote.

Citing her actions, a resident on Nov. 19 requested Severson recuse herself from voting on a state-required general plan document showing how Orinda plans to meet affordable housing guidelines; Severson did not recuse herself.

Severson, a council member since 2006, said she has recently reviewed the council policies and procedures manual, which includes guidelines on meetings and council correspondence, and has a "better understanding" of the rules.

City staffers also put the brakes on a recommendation that the council delete "outdated policy" on written communication including email from the manual and replace it with place holder text, "which might" ¿be followed by replacement language for the guidelines on correspondence.

Citing concern from residents, City Manager Janet Keeter suggested a public workshop in January to review the entire manual and make adjustments to language on correspondence following council direction.

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For more of Sue Severson's apology, go to www.contracostatimes.com