Friday, December 10, 2010

CityWatchLA - Breaking the Law and playing dumb

CityWatch, Pub: Dec 10, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 98

The laws that require the City of Los Angeles to conduct its business in an open and participatory manner are regularly trounced by people who don't know any better or who simply feign ignorance. Either way, it demonstrates a significant need for oversight and reform at City Hall.

The Brown Act, named after its author, Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, and passed by the California State Legislature in 1953, guarantees the public the right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies that include neighborhood councils, City Commissions, and the City Council.

Unfortunately, the 57 year-old law is not required reading by the very people who are in the best position to violate it as demonstrated by the regularity with which it gets abused.

LA's City Hall is manned by a security detail that requires people to utter the phrase "The Brown Act" in order to invoke the State Law guaranteed rights, an odd approach to public participation, especially since it wasn't too long ago that those same officers were unaware of the phrase. It was the public that insisted that the Brown Act covered the public from the front door to the gavel.

LA's Police Commission is staffed by very polite people who seem completely unfazed by Ralph M. Brown's legacy, again offering the public an opportunity to educate those in charge of enforcing the law.

LA's Department of Water and Power Commission is staffed by City Attorneys who waste no time jumping on complaints and deflecting criticism, but who are completely unable to address the simple fact that the Brown Act requires a do-over if people are prevented from freely attending meetings.

If the Brown Act is violated at the front door, it is safe to say that those in charge are not diligent in enforcing compliance and the public should be diligent about agendas, reports, actions, and participation.

The upside to the tremendous burden that this puts on the public is the simple fact that legal fees are recoverable which means that the remedy or "cure" for the public is a do-over and any legal assistance is recoverable.

The California Public Records Act, (CPRA) also referred to as California Government Code Section 6250, guarantees the public the right to review documents, reports, and other records including digital files, as a fundamental and necessary right of every person in the state.

The CPRA is also not required reading by the very people who are in the best position to violate it as demonstrated by the inconsistencies within City Hall.

The LADOT lists instructions for records requests on its website, rules that are repeated by staff when requests are made. The problem is that they require payment in advance for information that has not yet been reviewed. It's the other way around. Requested information can be reviewed and if copies are requested, a reasonable fee may be charged. But, most importantly, simply reviewing documents does not come with a fee.

The LADOT also says "Please allow 10-14 working days to receive your requested documents. Absolutely no rush orders will be accepted."

The CPRA, by contrast, says "Each agency, upon a request for a copy of records, shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefor."

City Planning doesn't accept verbal requests, and then when they are put in writing, they must be sent to the correct person or they simply languish in limbo, violating the 10 day window of required response. Apparently "I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong person!" is still an option at City Planning.

The City of LA is not alone in its unequal and illegal interpretation of the California Public Records Act. Both Metro and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) are staffed by employees well-trained in the "I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong person!" approach to public service. Typically, locating the correct staffer is enough to make even the most intrepid member of the public simply give up and fade away.

By design? Regardless, it's illegal and once again, the remedy is to correct the situation and the legal fees are recoverable.

The 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

LA's City Council recently engaged in a discussion of the 1st Amendment and an LADOT staffer pointed out that the 1st Amendment "came under federal purview" and was not the responsibility of the City of LA. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The City of Los Angeles has run afoul of the 1st Amendment on more than one occasion, costing the city significant amounts of money in legal fees and settlements. The City of LA deals with the 1st Amendment on a regular basis, from newspaper racks on the public right-of-way to tourist attractions such as the Venice Beach Boardwalk and Hollywood Boulevard.

A federal judge recently ruled that LA's lottery system for vendor permits on the Venice Boardwalk was a violation of the law and issued an injunction that paved the way for a 1st Amendment "Freedom of Speech" lawsuit by those who were cited by the LAPD.

Another federal judge ruled in favor of "superheroes" who dress up and pose for tourists on Hollywood Boulevard, defending their right to perform and ask for tips as a 1st Amendment guaranteed "Freedom of Speech" issue that was violated when the LAPD cited the characters.

Critics point to the City of LA's inability to train its staff on the Brown Act, the California Public Records Act, and the 1st Amendment as evidence that the public needs to have greater authority over City Hall and its adherence to the law.

Others claim that the City's bumbling over agendas and motions is a smokescreen that prevents the public from focusing on violations of California's prohibition against the gift of public goods, a charge that comes up with increasing regularity in land use issues, or from noticing Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) powerful deterrents to public participation.

Through it all, former Los Angeles councilwoman Ruth Galanter puts things in perspective by reminding us "I used to believe in conspiracies, until I discovered incompetence."

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, the city allows Los Feliz Blvd. to operate as a used car lot claiming it can't infringe on the sellers' 1st Amendment rights. The city uses and ignores the 1st amendment depending on its own agenda.