Wednesday, February 22, 2012
“Mr. Brown” Takes His Act to City Hall
Mr. Brown knew that parking opportunities downtown were expensive and limited so he took the Metro, arriving at the Civic Center station and walking east, pausing to admire the impressive architecture of the Times building, the LAPD Headquarters, and the Caltrans building.
As Mr. Brown followed his map to 200 N. Spring Street, he turned north and stood across the street from City Hall, a building so awe inspiring, he found himself simply standing and looking up at the world’s tallest base isolated structure. This was were he committed his first mistake of the day.
Mr. Brown crossed the street, using a crosswalk decorated with the LA City Seal and a peace dove, and walked up the granite steps, through the huge arches and into the Romanesque forecourt.
He paused to read the inscription over the doorway, “Righteousness Exalteth a People,” and emboldened by the words of Solomon he continued walking toward the front door of LA’s City Hall.
Again he paused, this time to examine the bronze bas relief carvings that memorialize half a dozen key events in LA’s history, including one with Commodore Robert Field Stockton and Major John Charles Fremont saluting the flag in “American Occupation 1846.”
Mr. Brown opened the door and took a couple of steps, pausing to allow his eyes to adjust to the sudden shift from the sunlight to the dimly lit atrium. He was greeted by a man in uniform, complete with a badge and a gun, who stood in his way.
“You can’t come in here.” said the uniformed greeter.
“I’m here to attend a public meeting.” explained Mr. Brown.
“You have to exit, go around the building, and enter through the back of the building. The front entrance is only for City of LA staff and officials.” said the doorman as if he was guarding LA’s most exclusive club.
“But I’m a member of the public here to attend a public meeting.” repeated Mr. Brown.
“Back up, go around the building, and use the back door.” repeated the officer from LA’s Office of Public Safety, this time a tad more gruffly than the first time.
Mr. Brown exited and circled the building, and entered through the back door where he was greeted by a full contingent of OPS officers who were operating screening equipment.
He placed his personal belongings on the conveyor belt and waited while a little old man was repeatedly sent through the screening machine, each time eliciting a beep that prompted the OPS officer to repeat the instruction “remove all metal objects.” The little old man would shift his cane from one hand to the other as he patted his pockets and searched for the offending security violation, coming up empty each time.
Eventually, the OPS officer and his partner noticed that the little old man was wearing suspenders, an oversight that prompted them to give him a lecture on the need to declare his suspenders in the future.
Mr. Brown was screened with no problems, and as he followed the little old man with the cane, another OPS officer bellowed “Come back here, I need to see your ID.”
“I’m here to attend a public meeting.” explained Mr. Brown.
“I need to see your ID.” repeated the OPS officer from behind the counter.
“Am I being detained?” asked Mr. Brown.
“No, you just need to show me your ID so I can give you this sticker.” said the OPS officer who was responsible for a clipboard filled with names and a sheet of stickers.
“Then you don’t need my ID, I’m here to attend a public meeting.”
“Oh!” said the OPS officer, “You’re using the Brown Act. You need to tell me that you’re using the Brown Act.”
“Actually, there are no magic words or passwords or special phrases needed in order to attend a public meeting under the Brown Act,” explained Mr. Brown, “One does not need to know the specifics of the Brown Act in order to be covered by the Brown Act. I’m here to attend a public meeting, you know it is covered by the Brown Act, and it is your legal obligation and sworn duty to allow me to attend without demanding ID.”
“Why are you giving me a hard time?” the OPS officer said, apparently a rhetorical question that was certainly beneath her role as a Sergeant with LA’s Office of Public Safety.
“Actually, it is you who is giving a member of the public a hard time,’ responded Mr. Brown, “first by ‘demanding’ identification from a member of the public who is simply trying to attend a public meeting and then by requiring a ‘magic phrase’ in order to invoke the Brown Act. You’re not only giving me a hard time, you’re committing a misdemeanor in the presence of law enforcement officers.”
Mr. Brown took his sticker from Sgt. “M” and began to walk toward the elevators when he thought twice and decided to talk to a supervisor. He asked a different OPS officer (budget constraints be damned, there were six OPS officers in the lobby of City Hall) and a radio request went out for the Watch Commander.
The Lieutenant on duty sent over a Sergeant, a large man who would definitely benefit from a few days in charm school. His disdain for Mr. Brown was palpable and his interest in the Brown Act guarantees was minimal, if any existed at all.
“I’m sure that if we were doing something wrong, the City Attorney would tell us.” Sgt. “L” explained, turning as if his confidence in the status quo was sufficient to end the conversation.
“But your officers seem to think that a demand for ID is acceptable and it isn’t.” explained Mr. Brown. “Further, they seem to think that there is a Brown Act password that must be exercised in order to invoke the Brown Act. That’s also not true.
“I’ not sure of any of the details of the Brown Act,’ Sgt. “L” explained, casting doubts on the efficacy of OPS supervision, “But the City Attorney tells us what to do and we do it. I’m sure if the City Attorney has a policy, it’s a legal policy.”
Mr. Brown realized that conversation with Sgt. “L” was going nowhere so he asked if he could file a complaint. Sgt ”L” said he had to go to his car for the form, a trip that took 20 minutes, resulting in the return of an empty-handed Sgt “L” who explained that he would have to go to Headquarters for the form. (OPS HQ is across the street)
In light of the time it took Sgt. “L” to simply get to his car which was parked at the curb, Mr. Brown considered how long it would take Sgt. “L” to actually cross the street and chose to visit OPS HQ himself. He crossed the street, entered the underground mall and found the OPS HQ, just past the Togo’s and to the right.
The OPS Watch Commander listened attentively with just a hint of fatigue and acknowledged that the City Attorney had performed Brown Act training, that the OPS request for ID is just a request, that there is no “magic phrase” that invokes the Brown Act, and that the City Attorney had distributed training materials to the OPS officers.
Mr. Brown asked for a copy of the Brown Act training materials, a request that brought a look of pain to the Watch Commander’s face. He shuffled a few stacks of documents and asked a Sergeant at the front desk if there was a copy of the Brown Act training procedures anywhere in the office. There was none.
After a bit of a search, he offered a substitute, a one-inch thick OPS Policies and Procedures Manual, complete with bright red cover that surely signified its importance.
Mr. Brown scanned through the manual and quickly located the section of the manual that addressed visitors who “either do no (sic) have identification or refuse to present identification upon request. Officers should not deny access to any person as long as they have been properly screened and their bags inspected (Refer to Chapter 6 Section XX-D).”
It was immediately apparent that nobody had actually read the manual because the manual directed the reader to Chapter 6 Section XX-D that is entitled “Dangerous Animal Escape and Response.”
This explains the look on the face of Sgt. “L” as he parked his car curbside and entered LA’s City Hall. He was apparently prepared for an encounter with a “Dangerous Animal Escape.”
While the line between “members of the public” and “dangerous animal escape” may be extremely thin in the eyes of City Hall’s security detail, California’s Brown Act still prevails and the public has the right to attend public meetings without fear of being treed, tranquilized, or chased by Animal Control.
Mr. Brown took the time to point out the typos in the OPS Manual, including the fact that OPS officers are told to give a Blue sticker to people who show their ID and Red stickers to the other members of the public, then offering contradictory instructions.
First “Officers who then observe a person wearing a red visitor badge should be cognizant of the reasons why it was issued.”
Then “However, officers should not treat the wearer with any unwarranted suspicion.”
The OPS Manual concludes by instructing “Officer must be mindful that City Hall is a public building, and therefore balance the duty to provide for the safety of the occupants with the duty to protect the rights of those wishing to attend public meetings.
Mr. Brown thanked the Watch Commander for his time and sent a request to the City Attorney for a copy of the Brown Act training materials that are used to instruct the Office of Public Safety officers. The request has so far been ignored.
As for the City Council meeting that Mr. Brown wanted to attend, he returned to City Hall but the doors to Council Chambers were locked and LA’s part-time City Council was gone for the day.
Mr. Brown has been taken to task by those who contend that asking for ID at the front counter of City Hall is such a small injustice, one that doesn’t warrant such a stubborn demand for adherence to the Brown Act.
Mr. Brown explains “If the City of LA doesn’t know enough about the Brown Act to allow the public to simply enter the building legally, then it is certain they are not aware of the other provisions of the Brown Act such as proper notification, informative agendas, making materials available to the public, and allowing appropriate public comment.”
It has been 59 years since the Ralph M. Brown Act was passed by the California State Legislature and it guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.
When the Brown Act was originally introduced, the Sacramento Bee wrote “A law to prohibit secret meetings of official bodies, save under the most exceptional circumstances, should not be necessary. Public officers above all other persons should be imbued with the truth that their business is the public’s business and they should be the last to tolerate any attempt to keep the people from being fully informed as to what is going on in official agencies. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case. Instances are many in which officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy.”
Those words are as true now as they have ever been.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. You can also find him on Twitter and on Facebook.)