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Will We Ever Crack L.A. County's Secret Government?

Max Schwartz |
September 30, 2015 | 8:00 a.m. PDT

Civic Center Bureau Chief

(Jonathan Tolliver/Neon Tommy)
(Jonathan Tolliver/Neon Tommy)
You probably don’t even know their names. But they are the five most powerful people in local government anywhere in the country. They often make decisions without input from the public, and they seem to like it that way. 

Welcome to life as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. If L.A. County were a country, they would be overseeing the world’s 19th largest economy. Yet they only meet in public once a week for no more than five hours. Often much less. Somehow they manage to address pressing issues with an agenda packed with ceremonial items like pet adoptions and testimonials to dead people whose lives enriched us all.

How does the L.A. County Board of Supervisors manage to do all this? It’s easy. They perform much of the public’s business outside public view, often skirting the California’s open-meeting laws. Sometimes they even run into legal problems with the L.A. County District Attorney, who most recently found they conducted an illegal vote on Aug. 11 when they approved a jail-construction plan even though it wasn’t on the agenda. 

SEE ALSO: Report On Jail Violence Dominates Board Of Supervisors Meeting

Supervisors didn’t show much remorse, at least not in public, for getting nailed red-handed by the top county prosecutor.

It wasn’t the first time that the board’s decision-making outside public view was called into question. County supervisors should be engaging the public in robust debates on the leading issues of our time, from public safety to healthcare to the environment.

Instead, they act as though public involvement in their work is bad for democracy.

Take the summer of 2014, when the supervisors made their opposition known to proposed legislation aimed at loosening up the rules allowing the public to speak at their meetings. All five supervisors signed a letter sent to every member of the state legislature opposing Assembly Bill 194. 

The letter did not grow out of a public meeting where county supervisors specifically directed their staffs to write a letter. By all appearances, this letter looked like the product of what is called a “serial meeting” and forbidden by the state’s open-meeting laws. They signed the letter in private without first discussing it at a meeting.

SEE ALSO: L.A. County Paves Way For Wave Of Historic Landmark Designations

Supervisors say they have some wiggle room on the law because the letter kept within the boundaries of their so-called Legislative Agenda approved each year. Ryan Alsop, the ex- asst. CEO in charge of intergovernmental and external affairs, called the opposition to the bill a “pre-ordained thing by way of our policy platform.”

The D.A.s Office bought the county’s explanation and found no violation of the Brown Act.

But not all legal experts buy the county’s explanation. David Jung, professor and director of the Center for State and Local Government Law at University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said what county supervisors did “probably is a violation of the Brown Act. You’ve got a Board Resolution in December, before the legislation is even in front of the legislature, then you’ve got memos circulating in February; then you’ve got a letter written in August. The board is making an entirely new decision when it signs that the position of the County is going to be to oppose this particular legislation and they made that decision collectively…through kind of serial meeting or serial writing.”

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open government advocacy group that co-sponsored the bill, called Los Angeles County’s habit of conducting public business in private a major problem. 

SEE ALSO: Board Of Supervisors Approves Multimillion Dollar Parks And Recreation Assessment

“And that means that the matter is never discussed at an open and public meeting, that the only pubic evidence of the Board’s position is in these memos, which are found only on the Web page of the executive office, which are never mentioned in the agendas or related materials for board meetings themselves,” Francke said. “So if all you are paying attention to are what the Board actually does and says at its meetings, you would never know that it has taken, silently, a specific position on a specific bill.” 

Gov. Jerry Brown ultimately vetoed the bill. 

Another example that comes to mind is the trip all five supervisors took to Washington, D.C. last spring.

All of the supervisors – Hilda Solis, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Sheila Kuehl, Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich – were in the capitol for a special meeting from April 21 to April 23. (Antonovich was back in the county on April 23.) The special meeting, which had an agenda, was made up of individual meetings with members of Congress and executive branch officials. The longest meeting was with White House officials, lasting one hour and 35 minutes. The longest meeting with a member of Congress was with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy – and it lasted one hour and eight minutes. The shortest meeting was only 20 minutes, and that was with Rep. Karen Bass. 

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The Brown Act says, “The call and notice [of a special meeting] shall specify the time and place of the special meeting and the business to be transacted or discussed. No other business shall be considered at these meetings by the legislative body.” 

In this case, however, the agenda did not give any clue what would be discussed during the meetings with legislators. It only said, “the Board of Supervisors will discuss legislative and regulatory issues affecting Los Angeles County.”

Michael S. Overing, a lawyer who runs his own firm, said there does need to be a broad phrase on the agenda, so the supervisors are not cornered, but he said there needs to be something more specific. 

“That [what was put on the agenda] gives no notice to anybody about what it is that they’re going to talk about. That gives them the opportunity to sweep a whole lot of stuff into the catchall,” he said.

SEE ALSO: L.A. County Board Of Supervisors To Consider Six Figure Settlement On Alleged Civil Rights Violations

Californians Aware’s Francke said the agenda’s description of the business “probably would not be specific enough if they were to take action. But, if it’s just a discussion of a variety of things, they could probably get away with it.”

The special meeting’s Statement of Proceedings does list what was specifically discussed during the trip – which should have been included in the agenda – and it says, “No actions were taken.” This document, though, came out more than 10 days after the conclusion of the special meeting. 

The statement for the special meeting, which concluded on April 23, was posted online on Friday, May 8. That is 11 business days after the meeting ended. The public should not have to wait that long to find out what happened during a supposedly public meeting between legislators in multiple levels of government who have been elected to serve the public.

SEE ALSO: L.A. County Board Of Supervisors Candidates Debate

Congressional offices were a bit more open about what was discussed. 

Fabion Seaton, a staffer in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s office, referred to Kuehl’s twitter account. His email said: “Hey Max- // I got your message asking about Senator Boxer’s meeting with the LA County Board of Supervisors. Members of the Board, including Sups. Hilda Solis, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl tweeted about the meeting and the topics discussed. // As Sup. Kuehl tweeted, they discussed health care and LA Transportation. // Let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.”

It was so hard to find out even the scantest details of what supervisors discussed with our federal officials that I’m considering a different approach the next time they head to a special meeting out of town. 

I’ll buy an airplane ticket and tag along.

Reach Civic Center Bureau Chief Max Schwartz here; follow him on Twitter here.



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