A proposal for greater public oversight of Los Angeles County supervisors' discretionary funds was quietly dropped from a policy document adopted by the board this week that formalized the criteria for some of the millions of taxpayer dollars they spend without a vote or public discussion.
A draft policy outlined by County Counsel Andrea Sheridan Ordin in a March 8 letter to the board recommended that grants of more than $1,000 to social programs appear on the Board of Supervisors' public agenda. But that provision was not in the policy approved Tuesday by three of the board's five members: Gloria Molina, Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas. Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky were traveling outside the U.S. and did not vote.
Each supervisor is allocated more than $3 million a year to spend as he or she sees fit, a practice that became the subject of a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court after The Times reported last year that supervisors had used the money to pay for chauffeurs, throw parties for friends and lobbyists, and support projects that burnished their public images.
Glen Golightly of Long Beach argues in the lawsuit that the supervisors are violating the state's open meetings law by allocating funds without a public vote. He is also challenging their legal authority to spend the money, concerns that his attorney said were not addressed in the board's action this week.
"It seems like what they passed, they have watered down so that it is meaningless," said Paul Heidenreich, who represents Golightly.
An investigation last year by the Los Angeles County district attorney's Public Integrity Division concluded that the board's discretionary spending did not violate any laws; the county's lawyers say the lawsuit has no merit.
Ordin said in an email that her office recommended that the board adopt a policy to "reflect more publicly" the standards it uses when issuing grants to social programs, funding that she said helps fill gaps in the provision of healthcare, education and other services.
The policy adopted Tuesday requires that such donations help meet the needs of county neighborhoods, communities and residents; that an agreement be signed with the beneficiaries stipulating how the funds will be used and requiring a full accounting; and that any unused funds be returned to the county. Donations to religious groups are permitted as long as the programs they fund are open to all.
Ordin said four county offices — those of the chief executive, board executive, auditor-controller and county counsel — must sign off on the agreements, and the allocations are published quarterly on the county website.
Citing the pending litigation, the supervisors discussed the policy in closed session last week. A spokeswoman for Molina also cited the lawsuit in saying she could not respond to questions about why some of Ordin's recommendations were dropped. The other supervisors did not respond to requests for comment.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the open-government group Californians Aware, said the supervisors were entitled to discuss their legal strategy in private session, but he questioned the legality of the board's meeting behind closed doors to discuss questions of public policy.
"Anything that any government body does may influence or trigger litigation," he said. "It's not a justification for taking into closed session anything that might be legally controversial."
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, questioned the need for discretionary accounts, which are popular among elected officials. If funds are available to donate to worthy organizations, he said, "then why not do it through the ordinary systems that … are awarding the grants on at least a quasi-competitive basis?"
Ordin said her office decided to drop the recommendation about how grant applications are approved in order to speed up approval of the criteria to receive funding. The board had postponed voting on the policy four times. "The thought was 'Let's get this part done,' " she said.
But she said she expected further discussion of whether to require board approval for grants above a certain amount.
Yaroslavsky has said that he supports the idea of setting a financial threshold for donations to outside groups and that payments above that amount should be put to a public vote. But he also said he had trouble winning support for the proposal from other supervisors.
Last week, Molina placed on the public agenda a $25,000 grant she wanted to make to Western University of Health Sciences-College of Dental Medicine to provide screenings and treatment for children in East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley.
The matter was postponed at the request of Knabe, who accused Molina of "trying to drive a policy until we've agreed on it."