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Civic group says L.A. Council met illegally when federal judge held court in City Hall

Los Angeles
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter and LAPD Officer Deon Joseph check an empty water dispenser while touring skid row.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

By any account, the Aug. 7 hearing convened in Los Angeles City Hall by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter was unusual.

“This is a rather historic occasion that the federal court would gather in the City Council chamber,” Carter, who took the chair usually reserved for the council president, said. “I hope it’s very positive.”

But Ground Game LA, a group that describes itself as a nonprofit dedicated to increasing civic engagement, contends the meeting was illegal. At the status conference, Los Angeles City Council members came forward one by one to brief the judge on the progress of their efforts to create more shelter for homeless people camped near freeways and underpasses. That, Ground Game LA contends in a letter to City Atty. Mike Feuer, was, in effect, a meeting held without an agenda, notice to the public or the required opportunity for public comment.

Feuer’s office in a statement Wednesday said the hearing was not a council meeting because “the council members attended the hearing individually or in small groups. At no point was a majority of the Council in the Council chamber at the same time. Nor were the Members able to hear the meeting except when inside the Council chamber, either physically or via Zoom.”

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The letter of complaint contends that the meeting was what is known as a serial meeting, which is expressly prohibited by the state’s open meeting law.

A legislative body shall not “use a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business,” in lieu of a formally noticed meeting, the letter said, quoting the Ralph M. Brown Act, which sets out open-meeting requirements for government bodies in the state.

Feuer spokesman Rob Wilcox said it was not a serial meeting because “council members were instructed to not communicate anything said at the hearing between the small groups,” and Carter “did not transmit council members’ communications between the small groups.”

At 76, Judge David Carter knows he shouldn’t be on skid row exposing himself to the coronavirus. But he wants more for L.A.'s homeless people.

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Carter has called another status conference for Thursday, and the group is threatening to file a lawsuit if the council members appear.

The group’s letter, delivered Tuesday by the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, also demands that the council publish any action taken during the Aug. 7 meeting, a status conference for an agreement reached by the city and county to find alternate shelter for about 7,000 people living on the sidewalks under freeway overpasses. Some news media were invited to the hearing, which was otherwise not open to the public. There was no agenda, and no time was set aside for public comment. No council votes were taken.

Although the letter does not identify any specific action, Bill Przylucki, the group’s executive director, said the council members’ testimony sent a clear “vibe” that they were discussing policy that could lead to homeless people being forcibly removed from encampments once more shelters are opened.

“This opens a pathway for them to start doing enforcement and clearing encampments in exchange for housing,” Przylucki said. “That would be a new policy that was never voted on in light of day. We absolutely think the city needs to house people. We don’t think a consent decree is needed to do that. We also don’t think the civil rights of unhoused people have to be the payoff.”


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