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Drawing the Lines Behind Closed Doors

“Executive Session. Doors Locked. No Admittance.”

There were no ambiguities on the hand-written sign posted on a door in the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. The county supervisors were meeting behind closed doors Wednesday morning for the second day in a row and they didn’t want outsiders in the room.

Forsaking their big supervisorial chambers, the lawmakers gathered in a comparatively small room at the end of a hard-to-find hallway. The hall was separated from the main corridor by the locked door.

The supes obviously meant business. They had stationed an armed sheriff’s deputy by the door to keep people away. The day before, Times reporter Richard Simon had been handcuffed briefly by the deputy when he disregarded the officer’s order and opened the door to ask a question of a supervisor passing in the hall.

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The privacy seemed to spur productivity. In a couple of hours, the supervisors had debated and voted on new district lines that would alter the representation of residents throughout the county. They rushed the proposal over to federal Judge David Kenyon, who had ruled the old lines violated the Voting Rights Act by discriminating against Latinos.

It wasn’t much of a surprise. Everyone knew it was coming. Why, then, the locked doors and the deputy?

The supervisors offer a reason. While a state law requires county and city governments to have open meetings, it allows officials to meet in private to discuss litigation--lawsuits against the government, condemnation of property and other such matters. That’s so they can have confidential conferences with their attorneys.

County redistricting involves a lawsuit, filed by the U.S. Justice Department. Making the broadest possible interpretation, county Counsel Dewitt Clinton has told his supervisorial bosses they can discuss almost anything connected with that lawsuit behind closed doors.

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When faced with a similar Justice Department suit a few years ago, the Los Angeles City Council took an entirely different course. It held public hearings. The debate and vote on a redistricting plan was held in an open meeting.

I asked Supervisor Mike Antonovich why the supervisors didn’t do the same. Antonovich had joined with fellow conservatives Deane Dana and Pete Schabarum to push the plan through.

Antonovich explained that he had wanted public hearings, but Judge Kenyon didn’t give the supervisors enough time to hold them. “The timing of the judge’s decision precluded public input,” he said.

Fine. I didn’t agree with him, but at least he’d thought out a reason. And he and Dana had briefed the press extensively about the new plan. We exchanged pleasantries and I went upstairs to a press conference held by the two liberals who opposed the plan, Ed Edelman and Kenny Hahn.

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There, I found out Antonovich and Dana hadn’t told the whole story. Hahn revealed that Antonovich, Dana and Schabarum had teamed up at the meeting to approve spending $500,000 in public funds to continue the redistricting fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary. That’s on top of the $4 million the board has already spent.

The appropriation was unusual, to say the least. The supervisors gave Schabarum authority to oversee the spending of the $500,000. That authority will continue even after he retires from the Board of Supervisors at the end of the year.

There was a reason for extending Schabarum’s life well beyond the political grave. Some supervisors told me the conservatives did it because they figure Kenyon will reject their latest plan. They’re afraid a new board, elected from districts drawn by Kenyon, will drop the redistricting fight. Schabarum, armed with the half million, can continue the battle. And to make sure a new board doesn’t rescind the action, the present board approved paying the money now--in a lump sum--to the Los Angeles law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. The check went out to the law firm an hour later.

“This is a gift of public funds,” said Hahn. Absolutely legal, replied county officials.

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What’s certain is that if Hahn hadn’t blown the whistle, no outsider would have known about the $500,000 expenditure. That’s a lot of money to give away behind locked doors.


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