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County supervisors to revisit jail plan after outcry over surprise vote

County supervisors to revisit jail plan after outcry over surprise vote
Los Angeles County supervisors have been considering plans to replace the Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County supervisors reversed course Tuesday on last week's controversial vote to proceed with design and construction of a new downtown jail, an action some legal experts said violated the state's open meetings law.

Advocates who have been tracking Los Angeles County's plans to replace the Men's Central Jail with a new lockup geared toward inmates with mental-health issues were startled when county supervisors agreed to move forward with a 3,885-bed facility. No such item was included on the agenda posted before the meeting.

Instead, supervisors were scheduled to vote on a plan to set up an ambitious multi-million dollar program to divert mentally ill inmates from jails. That proposal -- which the board passed -- was supported by Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who led a task force that studied the issue, and by a coalition of jail reform advocates.

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During discussions of the diversion plan, three board members brought up proposals to resume work on the stalled jail plan. It has been on hold while county officials studied the number of beds the new facility should have.

During last week's discussion, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich proposed a 4,600-bed central jail. Supervisor Hilda Solis suggested a 3,243-bed facility. The supervisors ultimately agreed to a compromise of 3,885 beds proposed by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. The vote was 3-1, with Supervisor Don Knabe voting no and Solis abstaining.

The unexpected decision prompted an outcry and threats of lawsuits from advocates who want to see the jail plan downsized.

Antonovich subsequently requested the vote on the jail project be rescinded and reconsidered at the board's Sept. 1 meeting.

"We understood that there were members of the public concerned that there was not enough time to participate in the process," said Tony Bell, Antonovich's spokesman. The supervisor wanted to "make sure anyone who wanted to provide input on this item had that opportunity," Bell said.

County officials argued the jail vote was appropriate because the diversion proposal and construction plan were closely linked.

But Peter Scheer, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, agreed with critics who said the supervisors had run afoul of the state's open-meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.

"The whole point of the Brown Act agenda and notice requirements is to give the public advance notice that the supervisors will take up an issue they care about," he said. "Sure, the jail proposal is related [to the diversion plan], but that's not enough. By that logic the supes also could have voted to put anti-psychotic meds in the public water system."

On Tuesday, the county board unanimously voted to rescind the previous jail vote and set both the diversion plan and the jail plan for consideration on Sept. 1. Scheer said that action should correct the Brown Act problem.

Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.

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