D.A. Seeks Opinion on Local Officials Settling Suits in Private : Brown Act: Michael D. Bradbury asks the state attorney general whether resolving litigation behind closed doors violates open-meeting laws.
Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury has requested a state attorney general’s opinion on whether cities and counties are violating state open-meeting laws when they settle lawsuits in private and do not publicly announce their decisions.
Bradbury, in an August letter to Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, said he has concluded that the settlement of lawsuits against cities, counties and school districts must be discussed and approved in a public meeting.
“The lawsuits just disappear,” said Donald Coleman, special assistant district attorney. “The law suggests that should not be the case.”
But state law does not specifically prohibit private settlements, Coleman said.
Since private settlements are common statewide, Bradbury decided not to notify local agencies of what he considers violations of law until he receives the attorney general’s opinion, Coleman said. One is expected by December, he said.
In Ventura County, the Board of Supervisors approves lawsuit settlements in closed sessions and does not announce its decisions in public meetings. Coleman said he knows of no local city council that routinely announces settlements at meetings.
County Counsel James L. McBride and Ventura City Atty. Peter D. Bulens disagreed Wednesday with Bradbury’s reading of state law. They maintained that city and county officials have followed the law.
The Brown Act generally requires the meetings of public agencies to be open, but allows local officials to meet privately to discuss personnel and pending legal matters.
Both McBride and Bulens said the act clearly allows deliberation on settlements to be private. They said they are troubled that Bradbury would think otherwise.
To discuss settlements in public meetings would disclose the strategy of agencies to their legal opponents, the lawyers said.
“It’s an impossible standard,” Bulens said.
McBride and Bulens also said elected officials are not required to make public announcements of settlements reached in private.
“We do it sometimes, depending on the notoriety of the case and on whether is seems to have interest,” Bulens said. “But normally we don’t do it.”
McBride said the county routinely settles lawsuits in closed sessions and meets the legal requirements to make settlements public by including them in court records and other public files.
But Coleman said that when settlements are approved behind closed doors, the public has no way of knowing how public money is spent.
“The public has a right to know,” Coleman said. “But these suits are deemed to be sensitive. No one likes to be sued.”
But McBride maintained that the Legislature would have required such announcements if that was what it intended in the Brown Act. Public announcements are specifically required when public officials are fired in closed personnel sessions, McBride said.
Bulens and McBride said it makes little difference whether settlements are announced publicly. “It’s not a major issue,” McBride said. “And it’s not a bad idea to have the attorney general clarify the issue.”