If the public worries when elected representatives disappear behind closed doors, it is not paranoia. It is healthy skepticism about whether the matters to be discussed require a cloak of secrecy.
Recently Brea became the fourth Orange County city to pass an ill-advised law making it a criminal offense to discuss publicly what happened privately. The other cities are Mission Viejo, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana.
The Brea ordinance passed after council members said they suspected one of their colleagues of leaking information about a redevelopment project. The council member, Kathryn E. Wiser, often winds up on the short end of 4-1 votes, raising the suspicion that this is just another form of punishing a council maverick. Wiser contends that the council “could decide almost everything without closed session. I feel the public should be kept informed.” We agree.
Redevelopment was at the heart of Mission Viejo’s similar ordinance, passed three years ago. Council members contended that Councilman William S. Craycraft passed “damaging” information to officials of a neighboring city about Mission Viejo’s plans to develop an auto mall. Craycraft denied it.
State law already allows secret discussion of personnel matters and legal actions, including redevelopment plans, but it wisely does not call for criminal prosecution of those alleged to have made private matters public. A 1993 opinion from the state attorney general’s office says cities do not have the power to enact non-disclosure laws.
Cities have other remedies they can use against suspected “leakers,” including injunctions and requests that a grand jury investigate misconduct in office. These ordinances should be repealed where they exist, and other cities should not be tempted to adopt them as a way of muzzling dissent.