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L.A. County adopts new policy on letters supporting and opposing legislation after open meetings lawsuit

L.A. County adopts new policy on letters supporting and opposing legislation after open meetings lawsuit
After a lawsuit over alleged open meetings law violations, Los Angeles County supervisors, shown in 2015, approved new rules Tuesday for sending letters supporting and opposing legislation. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Under a settlement of a lawsuit over alleged violations of the state's open meetings law, Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to change their policy on sending letters supporting or opposing legislation.

The group Californians Aware, or CalAware, sued the county last year. It alleged that the supervisors had violated the state open meetings law by sending a letter to the Legislature  opposing a 2014 bill that would have restricted the ability of local elected officials to limit public comment during meetings.

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The bill passed but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

CalAware attorneys argued that the five supervisors had violated the Ralph M. Brown Act by not discussing or voting to send the letter at a public meeting.

In their letter to the Legislature, the supervisors said the bill, AB 194, was "ambiguous with respect to when and how often a member of the public must be allowed to speak" on an agenda item, and could be interpreted to allow someone to speak twice on every item.

They noted that sometimes hundreds of people seek to address the board at a given meeting and as many as 90 agenda items can be considered in a sitting.

"This measure would notably hinder the board's ability at their public meetings to make critical program and policy decisions in a timely and cost effective manner," they wrote.

In a letter to the county prior to filing the suit, CalAware general counsel Terry Francke disputed that interpretation of the legislation and also said the board should have discussed and voted on the letter in open session before sending it.

An attorney for the county responded that the board had voted publicly in December 2013 to adopt legislative policies that included opposing bills that "abridge or eliminate the Board of Supervisors' powers and duties," and that the letter was authorized under that vote. He also noted that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office reviewed the issue and found that the letter did not violate the Brown Act.

The district attorney's public integrity unit looked into the question after Eric Preven, a frequent speaker during public comment periods at the county meetings, filed a complaint about the letter.

Under a settlement agreement recently reached in the case, the county agreed to adopt a policy requiring that the board vote publicly before sending letters of support or opposition for legislation that would be signed by a majority of the board. The county will also pay $26,310 in attorney fees to CalAware.

The supervisors voted Tuesday to adopt the new policy.

They also voted during the meeting to send five-signature letters to the governor and Legislature supporting bills that would increase regulation of psychotropic medication prescribed to foster youth and opposing one that would restructure the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, giving the county less influence on the panel.

Twitter: @sewella

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