Wednesday, May 22, 2002
Closed Board Sessions Did Not Violate Brown Act—Cooley
By a MetNews Staff Writer
County supervisors did not violate state law by holding three closed sessions in December and January, District Attorney Steve Cooley has concluded.
In a memo sent to county supervisors Monday and made public by the county Chief Administrative Office that night, the district attorney said the closed meetings held on Dec. 18, Jan. 4, and Jan. 8 were authorized under the Ralph M. Brown Act.
There was also insufficient evidence, Cooley advised, to prove an allegation that supervisors violated the act on Dec. 19 by using the county counsel “as an intermediary to develop a collective concurrence” on future action to be taken by the board.
“Rather, the evidence suggests that the December 19, 2001 communications were actually an effort by the County Counsel to inform the members of the Board of his intention to take certain action the next day relating to a title and ballot summary for a proposed initiative,” Cooley wrote.
The Brown Act, which begins at Government Code Sec. 54950, requires all deliberations of local public government bodies in California to be conducted in public, unless they concern litigation or personnel matters. It prohibits members of city councils, boards of supervisors, commissions, water district boards, and other public agencies from contacting each other by letter or telephone, or in person in a non-public forum, to get information about matters they are to vote on or to discuss how to vote.
The allegations probed by Cooley are also the subject of a suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in March by the Los Angeles Times and Richard McKee, president of the California First Amendment Coalition.
In a writ petition and complaint filed March 28, the Times and McKee alleged that the board exceeded the scope of the personnel exemption by using its closed meetings to plot a campaign against the proposed ballot initiative, which would increase wages for the county’s home health- care workers. They also claim that supervisors held illegal telephonic meetings for the same purpose.
The scope of the litigation exemption was also exceeded, McKee and the Times claim, by introducing non-litigation and non-agenda items into the discussions at the closed sessions.
The plaintiffs also contend that the supervisors’ health deputies act as a “shadow board” by holding private meetings about matters before the board votes on them, and that the supervisors’ private, individual discussions with Chief Administrative Officer David Jannsen about items on the board’s agenda violate the act.
Those issues were not addressed by Cooley’s memo, which concluded by praising the supervisors for adopting “procedures that go beyond the norm to assure Brown Act compliance.”
Among other things, the board voted April 2 to tape its closed sessions, require that meetings of their deputies be open to the public when discussing board business, place official transcripts, corresponding video segments and all related documents of board meetings on the Internet; report the roll-call votes on each nonconsent agenda item; and provide a fuller explanation of the legal basis for going into closed sessions.
The supervisors also voted to require department heads to adopt policies for releasing public documents immediately upon request, and to conduct annual seminars with department heads on complying with open government laws.
The district attorney’s decision not to bring civil or criminal proceedings will not deter the Times from going forward with its lawsuit, which is to be heard by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs on June 13, an attorney for the newspaper said.
“We strongly disagree with Mr. Cooley’s conclusions and intend to pursue the Brown Act lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors,” Susan Seager of Davis Wright Tremaine said in a statement. “The evidence obtained to date, which includes memos obtained from county Supervisor Gloria Molina and County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman clearly shows that the board violated the Brown Act…by discussing topics not listed on the public agenda and…by holding an unannounced meeting. Even Supervisor Molina has said that the board held an illegal meeting on Dec. 19.”
Supervisors were in budget hearings all day yesterday and unavailable for comment.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company