CityWatch, Feb 3, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 10
RETHINKING LA - We, the people, have the right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies yet our elected officials regularly violate this right, creating obstacles to public attendance, participation, and free speech.
This behavior may be due to simple ignorance, although it is hard to believe that elected officials, some having been in public service for more than three decades, are still unaware of the Bill of Rights or the Brown Act.
Two days ago, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission was taken to task for convening the body without proper notice to the public of the meeting or its agenda, a violation of California’s Brown Act, also known as the Open Meeting Law.
The meeting was cancelled abruptly, prompting Commissioner Bernard Parks to chastise the Coliseum Interim General Manager John Sandbrook for allowing the meeting to take place without letting the Commission know that simply participating in the meeting could be a violation of the law.
One might suggest that the Brown Act violation is the least of the Commission’s worries, coming on the heels of charges that the Commission has been engaged in secret sessions that address a proposal to give operational control of the financially floundering stadium to USC.
This casualness with the law comes on the heels of the recent revelation that Coliseum officials have given over a million dollars in cash to a union official who was then responsible for the wages of the Coliseum stagehands, all with no oversight and accountability for appropriate taxes, insurance, and benefits.
As the US Labor Department and the District Attorney investigate this and other operational and financial irregularities, the Commissioners fall back on the favorite legal defense of elected officials, “I had no idea!”
LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky exclaimed "I was never made privy to, nor informed of, financial statements of any kind that documented any cash payments to anyone."
Zev was recently in the news for his attempt, in his new role as the Chair of the LA County Board of Supervisors, to limit public comment during Board sessions, a move that violates the Brown Act and demonstrates his contempt for public participation and free speech.
Keep in mind that Coliseum audits tend to follow media inquiries, demonstrating the value of public participation in the process and transparency in the management of public assets.
As for the Board of Supervisors, Zev recently introduced a motion to revise the rules in order to “improve the way Board meetings are conducted.” If approved, the new rules of order would mean simply participating in the Board meetings could be a violation of the law.
Open Meeting advocates, from the League of Women Voters to Bob Blue, pointed out that the public can’t be limited to general comments but have the right to comment on agenda items as they come up. They also pointed out that the proposed requirement to require speakers to provide their names and addresses also violates the law.
The open and transparent attempt to violate the Brown Act can only be attributed to contempt of the public, arrogant hubris, or complete and thorough ignorance of the law.
Whatever the explanation, it speaks volumes for the environment of neglect that has allowed the Coliseum to flounder while management paid their own companies to provide services and collected compensation from other Coliseum vendors, all while delivering suitcases of cash to the local union.
Typically, when officials such as the LA County Board of Supervisors or LA’s City Council are sworn in, the oath of office starts with a commitment to uphold the law of the land. Yet when it includes allowing the public to criticize them or to watch them engage in the public’s business, this oath falls by the wayside.
Miki Jackson and John Walsh recently went to LA’s City Council to speak during public comment on the demise of the CRA, an occasion that drew speakers from all perspectives and offered the City of LA an opportunity to participate in a violation of the 1st Amendment.
The City Council’s Sgt. at Arms, a sworn peace officer in uniform and armed with a gun, informed Jackson and Walsh that they couldn’t hold a sign while they were speaking nor could they even sit in chambers while in possession of the sign.
This violation of the 1st Amendment took place and as Jackson and Walsh left chambers, a member of the City Attorney’s office chased them down and urged them to return, demonstrating that somebody in chambers was familiar with the Bill of Rights guarantee of Free Speech and the Brown Act guarantee that criticism is a form of public comment.
This isn’t the first time that the City Attorney’s office has jumped to protect its client from violating the law.
Simply attending Council, Committee, and Commission meetings typically includes a demand for identification in violation of the Brown Act which guarantees open meetings and the right to participate without identification restrictions. (for those who worry about security issues, go visit the state capital. There is still security screening, they simply don’t require you to identify yourself)
The DWP Commission was well into its agenda when a member of the public entered to announce that the meeting was talking place in violation of the Brown Act because security was restricting access. The City Attorney’s representative jumped to his feet and acknowledged that the DWP’s policy of requiring identification was a violation of State law.
For those that question the significance of a simple ID violation, consider that the public agencies and authorities who are cavalier about such specifics are demonstrating a casualness with the law that typically reflects additional and deeper inappropriate or illegal behavior.
A member of City Planning recently stood next to a member of City Hall’s General Services Police Department and blocked entrance to a meeting of a Brown Act governed body to anyone who didn’t show identification. The city employee assured the public that they were trained in Brown Act rules and city staff reiterated their refusal to allow members of the public to attend or participate in the meeting until they produced identification.
This obstinate behavior, even when confronted by the law, speaks volumes to the uphill battle that the public faces when challenging plans, proposals, policies, codes, laws, and other actions that our elected officials and public employees advance on our behalf without our participation or approval.
The City Planning employee committed a misdemeanor, prosecutable because it took place in the presence of a sworn law enforcement officer. Typically, Brown Act violations require a claim of violation and a “demand for cure” which amounts to a do-over of the meeting or agenda item in question.
LA’s Police Commission also demonstrates a cavalier attitude to the Brown Act, either out of ignorance or arrogance, either way a bad sign for the body that purports to have oversight and accountability for the LAPD as it engages in the business of upholding the law.
Whether it’s your 1st Amendment fight to free speech or your Brown Act right to receive notice of meetings, speak in public, review documents before they are acted on, and simply witness the proceedings without hassle, the City of LA and the County of LA are far from a tradition of compliance.
Whether or not you care about the inner machinations of Coliseum management or the demise of the CRA or the details of Brown Act guarantees to open meetings, it’s important that you stand up for those that do.
Whether or not you care about access to City Planning or the DWP Commission or the Police Commission or any of the bodies that act on your behalf, it’s important that you stand up for those that do.
If you care about accountability in our government, it is imperative that you demand that those who are conducting the people’s business abide by the law, in everything they do.
When our elected officials violate the Bill of Rights and California State Law, they have violated their oath of office and clearly demonstrated that they are unfit to serve.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)