Governor joked about violating open-meeting law in talk with supervisors

During a closed-door session with Los Angeles County supervisors last fall, California Gov. Jerry Brown made a comment acknowledging that there would be questions about whether the group was violating the law.

According to a transcript obtained by The Times, the governor said at one point during the meeting, “Let’s get our Brown Act cover story.” He was referring to the state’s open-meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.

Moments later, then-County Counsel Andrea Sheridan Ordin noted that reporters who questioned the legality of the meeting — which indeed was later ruled illegal — were waiting outside. “You may have folks out there who want to ask questions,” she said.

The Sept. 26 session had been called by supervisors to discuss a controversial plan to shift the care of some prisoners from the state to the county. Before the meeting, several reporters had complained that it should be open to the public. But the discussion proceeded in private.

Brown was “clearly joking,” his spokesman, Gil Duran, said on Thursday.

After the meeting, a Times editorial writer filed a complaint with the county district attorney alleging that the session violated the Brown Act. A nonprofit group, Californians Aware, also filed suit against the county, saying the meeting was illegal.

In a Jan. 24 letter to county officials, Jennifer Lentz Snyder, the assistant head deputy district attorney, agreed. Lentz Snyder wrote that the meeting should have been open since the information discussed was not sensitive enough to constitute a public threat, which would have provided the officials with an exemption.

“The closed session was simply not permissible under the law,” Lentz Snyder wrote.

County officials subsequently agreed to release a transcript, which they are expected to do this week, and to pay nearly $14,800 in legal fees to Californians Aware. They also acknowledged that the meeting should have been public.

“The board is fully committed to transparency and openness, and with complying with both the spirit and letter of the Brown Act,” according to a statement issued Thursday.

Duran said that an unreleased recording of the meeting shows there is laughter following the governor’s comment. “He was mocking the county counsel’s premise for holding the session in closed session, which he thought was questionable.”

Brown and his staff had expressed concern about having a closed meeting beforehand, Duran said.

But the governor, a former California attorney general responsible for advising public officials on Brown Act requirements, said it was up to the county to comply with the Brown Act.

“It’s their meeting,” Duran said.

Supervisors have long complained that the state prisoner shift would cost the county money, strain law enforcement and possibly lead to a rise in crime.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas did not attend the meeting, according to the transcript.

The other supervisors seemed skeptical of the plan, especially Michael D. Antonovich, who has been its most vocal critic. At one point, Antonovich questioned why state officials had not met with their county counterparts earlier.

“The fire is already out of control, and we’re talking about building a fire department. And that is why it is frustrating on this end because we’re left with the responsibility and the legal liability,” he said.