The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors violated the law last year when it shut the public out of a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown that had been called to discuss the county’s new responsibility to deal with felons, according to a finding issued last week by the district attorney’s office. Realignment, as it is known, is a landmark shift in how Californians lock up, supervise and pay for thousands of criminals and parolees, and some of the supervisors have sought to sway public opinion on the issue with warnings of coming crime spikes and assertions that the state is leaving the county without adequate funding for the shift. But when it came time for a frank discussion between the highest state and county officials of the policies and practical aspects and expected consequences of realignment, the board retreated to a back room. In addition to violating the law, the action displayed an astonishing contempt for the public.
Supervisors asserted on their agenda that the Sept. 26, 2011, closed session was permissible because it was a discussion of “matters posing a potential threat to the public’s right of access to public services or public facilities to [sic] the impact of AB 109,” the realignment legislation. Nonsense. The 1970s-era exemption in the Ralph M. Brown Act, also known as the open meetings law, to discuss threats to public access was adopted so that public bodies could talk about how to prevent protesters from keeping people out of public buildings; and a post-9/11amendment to protect waterworks and other public utilities was adopted with potential terrorist attacks in mind.
No exemption allows a board of supervisors or any other public body to conduct discussions out of public view just because they want to speak candidly. In fact, the more frank the discussion — the more it deals with matters of safety, spending, deployment of public personnel and implementation of public programs — the more vital the need for the conversation to take place in the light of day.
Jennifer Lentz Snyder, assistant head deputy district attorney, said as much in her Jan. 24 letter to the board. Snyder investigated the circumstances of the meeting and listened to a recording of the closed-door discussion. But she also wrote that “further court process” was unwarranted — that in essence the board should get off with a scolding — because a second closed-door meeting on realignment was unlikely.
The Times is compelled to disagree. The investigation appears to have been limited in scope to the particular complaint filed with the district attorney’s office by a Times editorial writer who sought and was denied access to the meeting. But the meeting was apparently part of a series; the board had met in closed session with the governor on the same topic several days earlier by conference call, this time using the “threat of litigation” exception to open meeting laws.
Public bodies can in fact meet privately to discuss litigation strategy, but the board may not bootstrap itself into a closed session by threatening to sue or by pretending it is about to be sued — although that bootstrapping gambit has become something of a board specialty.
Several days after the in-person meeting with the governor, the board planned to hear from experts on whether to form a commission to study violence in Los Angeles County jails — and that discussion too was moved into closed session, ostensibly because it was related to a different agenda item to discuss an actual lawsuit over jail violence. Then, in open session, the board went through what appeared to be a charade — but how can we know? — of having the same discussion with the same people about whether to form a commission.
We cannot escape the conclusion that much of the discussion of two of the most important items of county business over the last year — management of the jails and public safety realignment — was improperly held behind closed doors in purported accordance with inapplicable exemptions from open meeting laws.
In one of the brief, after-the-fact sessions at which the board is forced to allow members of the public to comment, one person complained about so much public business occurring behind closed doors, and in so doing demonstrated a link between the closed-meeting abuses and another problem that has attracted attention in recent weeks.
When he became board chairman in December, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky proposed to curtail the amount of time members of the public have to address the board. He called for up to three minutes for each speaker on all agenda items, plus another two minutes at the end of each meeting, instead of the current practice: two minutes on each agenda item, plus an additional three at the end.
The amount of meeting time the new restrictions would save is inconsequential next to the unnecessary act of silencing speakers who, granted, sometimes irritate with pointless ramblings but sometimes enlighten with observations about a contract or a policy — and sometimes defend the rights of all members of the public with admonitions that the supervisors too often ignore. Whether or not the proposed stricter public speaking limits would comport with Brown Act requirements, they are a bad idea, given the board’s propensity to limit public access to public business. Intentionally or not, it appears as part of a continuum of contempt that the supervisors show the public.
The board should take its lumps and permit speakers to continue to address it on all agenda items. And now that the district attorney’s Public Integrity Division has debunked the assertion that the Sept. 26 discussion covered threats to public facilities, it’s time for the rest of us to hear what happened at the improperly closed session. The board should release the recording, and recommit itself to keeping public proceedings public.