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Kopp Seeks to Strengthen Meetings Law : Lawmaking: State senator calls for overhaul of Brown Act, saying that no measure has ever been overturned under 1953 statute.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Aiming to plug the gaps in California’s open meetings law, a Northern California senator introduced legislation Tuesday that would make it more difficult for local governments to meet behind closed doors.

Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) said there never has been a successful prosecution or a decision made in secret that was overturned for violating the Brown Act, the law passed in 1953 prohibiting private meetings among local decision-makers.

Kopp said he expected the County Supervisors Assn. and the League of California Cities to be the primary opposition to his bill. Spokesmen for both groups said no position on the bill had been adopted.

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“The time for a thorough overhaul of the law is long overdue,” Kopp said. “The premise is simple. Spending of public money should be conducted in public.”

“Secret local governmental sessions have become as commonplace as overcast skies in various cities and counties. Such closed meetings act as a fog, obscuring the public’s right to know what their government is doing.”

Kopp said local elected and appointed officials are aided by county counsels and city attorneys in finding creative ways to avoid requirements of the act.

At a Capitol news conference, Kopp distributed a long list of local governmental actions that he said were made behind closed doors.

They included a city council in Los Angeles County--identified by Kopp’s staff as Pasadena’s council--that had a slow-growth ordinance imposed upon it by a citizen ballot initiative. When developers sued the city to challenge the ordinance, the council agreed in closed session last year to settle the litigation by repealing the ordinance.

Another example, Kopp said, was a Los Angeles-area school board that used a closed session to approve the addition of a bathroom to the superintendent’s office. Kopp’s staff said the reference was to an action last year by the board in Manhattan Beach.

Still another was a Riverside County school board that decided in private to refuse to let parents speak against the suspension of junior high students disciplined for walking out of class in protest of the Persian Gulf War.

Kopp’s bill calls for 25 changes in the law, including banning “out of town” retreats where official business is conducted, expanding the law to include more types of meetings, restricting the use of closed-door meetings to discuss litigation and personnel matters, and allowing the filming of meetings. The measure would permit a complaint to be filed up to 30 days from the time a secret meeting is discovered, even if the meeting were held long ago. Violations would be misdemeanor offenses.

The legislation is supported by the Society of Professional Journalists, the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. and the First Amendment Coalition.

“Frankly, the Brown Act is not only toothless, it is darn near gumless,” said Terry Franke of the First Amendment Coalition, whose members are news organizations.


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