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L.A. Supes Face CalAware Lawsuit Over Brown Act Violations

Benjamin Gottlieb |
February 27, 2012 | 2:15 p.m. PST

Executive Editor

Los Angeles Board of Supervisors (Courtesy of the County of Los Angeles).
Los Angeles Board of Supervisors (Courtesy of the County of Los Angeles).
At the surface, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisor’s desire to streamline their weekly meetings maintains an air of reasonability.

The Board wants to curtail off-topic rambling from the meeting’s gadflies by reducing speaking time from three to two minutes per person, and be allowed to meet in private, or executive session, with the Governor and/or President for highly-sensitive, security-related matters, per their interpretation.

There’s just one problem: a piece of statutory legislation known as the Brown Act, which protects the public’s access and participation in local legislative bodies.

The Board of Supervisors violated that statute in September of last year, meeting privately with Governor Jerry Brown to discuss the AB 109 realignment, which saw counties such as L.A. Country take responsibility for a large portion of inmates and parolees previously supervised by the state. The incident ignited the ire of the public interest group CalAware, prompting them to file a lawsuit against the Board in the interest of transparency.

“It's not easy to violate two different provisions of the [Brown] Act with the same meeting—twice within a week—but that's what the Supervisors did and that's why CalAware is suing,” said Terry Francke of CalAware in an email to Neon Tommy. 

CalAware is seeking declaratory relief against the Board – essentially asking the court to determine whether or not the Board violated the Brown Act prior to any litigation. If the court deems this to be true, it is expected that the case would be settled prior to its July 6 trial date with State Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones.

Initially, the Board asserted that their two nonpublic meetings last fall were for the purpose of discussing “local security issues,” an allowable exemption under the Brown Act.

While that would have been permissible under state law, it was untrue, Francke said. The Board has since disclosed candidly that they met with Brown to discuss how much the state was going to subsidize or assist in the transfer of thousands of state prison inmates to Los Angeles jails.

There are provisions in the Brown Act that allow the Board – and other legislative bodies – to meet in private: to discuss contracts, personnel issues and even pending litigation. But none of those Brown Act exemptions cover the Board during the September 2011 meetings.

When asked if the actions by the Board to meet in private were a mistake, Joel Bellman, press deputy for L.A County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said no one in the County Supervisors’ offices disagree with the lawsuit.

“I wish it hadn’t happened and I wish the board hadn’t done it,” Bellman said, at an open meetings forum held sponsored by the Los Angeles Society of Professional Journalists. “No one on the board argues with the County decision.”

Although the Los Angeles District Attorney could release the tapes from the Board’s closed meeting, there currently are no plans to do so.

While a favorable verdict in the CalAware lawsuit would simply be a slap on the wrist, the organization hopes a favorable verdict would prevent the Board from future Brown Act violations.

“If you have the Governor and legislator acting in a closed session, you’d have every single actor necessary to make laws behind closed doors,” said Jeff Glasser, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and member of CalAware. “Our goal is to use the declaratory relief lawsuit so that the Board is on notice that they can’t hold closed door meetings in the future.”

The closed meeting lawsuit is not the only push by the Board to streamline its weekly meetings.

Bellman said under Yaroslavsky’s initiative, the Board will seek to limit the time the public is granted to address the body from three minutes to two minutes per individual. He contents that “gadflies” overload the meetings with outlandish and off-topic comments. By limiting speaking time, the Board would be able to be more effective during its meetings, Bellman added.

Christina Villacorte, the County government beat reporter for the Los Angeles Daily News, said the Board could be “a lot more transparent” and that the Board meetings are much less public friendly than City Hall.

“If you compare the County Board of Administration and City Hall, its very different,” Villacorte said in reference to public access to the meetings.

At L.A. City Council meetings, individuals are provided five minutes per person for all council items. At the Board meetings, it’s just three. And with Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s request fulfilled, it will be just two minutes.

While the Brown Act does specify that local legislatures must allot time for public comment, each legislative body is able to set it’s own speaker time so long as it is reasonable.

“Our contention is that Zev [Yaroslavsky] is operating under what is reasonable. But certainly, that’s a judgment call,” said Joel Bellman, press deputy for L.A County Supervisor Yaroslavsky.

Glasser said CalAware would consider further legal action against the Board if it continued to “unreasonably” limit the public’s right to speak at their meetings.  However, no legal action is planned.

The last time the Board violated the Brown Act, they were required to pay the legal fees of lawyers for the Los Angeles Times, totaling more than $100,000.  


To reach Benjamin Gottlieb, click here.

Follow him on Twitter @benjamin_max.



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