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A public trust problem for L.A. County supervisors

A public trust problem for L.A. County supervisors
LA County supervisor Hilda Solis speaks during a Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor's meeting on Tuesday, May 12. (Los Angeles Times)

Good for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who called out the Board of Supervisors for breaking public meeting laws last week. And, having stumbled over their own 10 feet, good for the supervisors for agreeing to undo their misdeed as best they can. They have likely gotten themselves out of legal trouble. But they have left a lingering public trust problem that requires their immediate attention.

It didn't have to be this way. The board was in the midst of taking positive and historic action on Aug. 11, adopting a plan and allocating funding to redirect mentally ill people accused of low-level crimes to community-based treatment instead of jail. It was the culmination of a process begun a year ago by Lacey, who led an effort to study mental health diversion efforts across the nation and who crafted a program to do here the kind of humane and cost-saving diversion that many other cities, counties and states already do.

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The importance of the county's move toward reallocating its resources in this way cannot be underestimated. Los Angeles jails are, by default, among the nation's largest mental healthcare providers because of several decades' worth of laws that dismantled the mental health treatment without replacing it with long-promised community-based services. The supervisors' vote represents a late but welcome step toward finally keeping at least a sliver of that promise.

The board's intention to discuss and vote on the diversion program was announced on what's known as the "supplemental" agenda for the Aug. 11 meeting. That means it didn't show up when the agenda was published, as it usually is, on Wednesday of the previous week. It was instead around quitting time on Friday, diminishing the heads-up that the public deserves. That's an all-too-common practice by the board, which tends to add consequential items to its to-do list after the close of business for the week — close to the last possible moment to comply with the legal requirement that agendas be published 72 hours in advance.

Still, notice of the diversion item fell within the letter of the law, even if it violated its spirit. The supervisors met, took up the issue, heard public testimony and voted.

Then, without prior notice, they proceeded to discuss and adopt a separate plan to downsize a facility to replace the dungeon-like Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and to move ahead with construction of a women's jail in the Antelope Valley. They offered this ludicrous explanation: The proper jail size depended on the number of people they could divert, so the agenda item on diversion programs and funding necessarily provided the public adequate notice that they would also take up and vote on the controversial multibillion-dollar public works projects.

The true reason for trying to shoehorn in the jails vote? It might be that they had just discovered that state officials were serious about a looming deadline to apply for construction funding, and that they were going to miss it because of their inattentiveness; or that properly calendaring the item for a later meeting would interfere with their vacation plans; or that providing legally adequate notice would raise too much of a public ruckus; or all of the above.

Some county officials also reasoned, after the fact, that anyone who cared about jails also cared about diversion, and therefore was already in the room and received their (very short) notice in real time.

But the purpose of public notice requirements isn't solely to allow people to show up at board meetings to offer comments, especially in a county of 10 million residents. Only a small slice of the public weighs in that way. Others voice their opinions by calling, emailing, organizing, lobbying or arguing in advance of a major decision affecting them — if they know, as the law entitles them to know, when that decision is to be made. And when push comes to shove, taxpayers and other members of the public have every right to know what their elected representatives are doing, whether they plan to weigh in or not.

The supervisors could have, and should have, set the jails vote for a later meeting to provide adequate public notice. This page speculated that Lacey might not take them to task for their violation of the law because she needed the board's support for her mental health diversion plan. To her credit, though, the county's top criminal prosecutor called on the board to "cure and correct this violation at its earliest convenience" by reconsidering the action, opening it up for additional debate and voting again.

The board has now reset the matter for Sept. 1. That will indeed cure and correct its legal problem, but the action can't help but leave the impression that the supervisors, having already voted, will be just going through the motions.

The Board of Supervisors, as it was reconstituted after two new members succeeded termed-out supervisors late last year, has moved swiftly, taking action in many areas that stymied the previous board. On mental health, medical care, child welfare and housing, as well as on dismissing key personnel, the board has moved decisively. Meanwhile, discussion of how best to replace the jails has plodded on for years, complicated as it is by differing ideologies and worries about crime and money. It's possible to see how an impatient board could be tempted to just cut to the chase — and cut through the law — on jail construction.

But the choice is not between analysis paralysis and obeying the law on the one hand, and action and lawbreaking on the other. It should not be difficult for the Board of Supervisors to respect the public, obey open meeting laws and still get its work done.

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