OPEN MEETINGS -- After a Brown Act lawsuit threat from Californians Aware, Tulare County Supervisors today agreed to put their practice of lunching together privately at the county’s expense before official meetings on hold while waiting for staff to draft
policy concerning supervisor meal and travel expense reimbursement, reports Jenna Chandler in the Porterville Recorder.

The elected officials, who are paid $88,664 annually, voted
unanimously at their regularly scheduled meeting to direct county staff
to write a policy about how employees — including members of the Board
of Supervisors — will be reimbursed for meals and mileage. The
supervisor luncheons may continue once a formal policy is adopted.


Before casting his affirmative vote, Fifth District Supervisor Mike
Ennis echoed the sentiments expressed by his fellow board members that
they want to be sure they are in compliance with the state’s open
meeting law.

“I want to know exactly what I can and cannot do as a member of the Board of Supervisors,” he said.

In addition to their annual salaries, supervisors are reimbursed for
costs associated with their regular travel within and outside of Tulare
County for meetings, lobbying trips and community events. But there
currently exists no formal policy to regulate their actions, or their
reimbursements.

In the first half of 2009, they were collectively reimbursed $19,985
for car allowances and mileage. Additionally, the public picked up the
tab for 228 lunches in the first half of 2009, totaling $4,472, or
nearly $20 per meal, according to figures collected by the Visalia
Times-Delta.


“It came as a surprise to me ... [that protocols] have never been
reduced to writing,” First District Supervisor Allen Ishida said.

In response to rising public concern over the amount of taxpayer
money being spent on the reimbursements amid the recession — which has
translated to hundreds of layoffs, reduced services and a loss of $13.3
million in revenues in the current fiscal year — County Administrative
Officer Jean Rousseau  said the new policies will be among several
administrative guidelines that will soon be reassessed.

“This has taken our attention away from constituent matters, and
that’s unfortunate,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of good things for the
county.”

According to Rousseau, the county has 37 administrative regulations,
eight of which have been revised under his watch, and ten more with
modifications on the horizon.

He apologized for not having the reimbursement policy revisions finished sooner.
“I’m going to push the staff [to write the policies,] much greater than I have to this point,” he said.

While board members said they were glad that new guidelines are 
being drafted, they also maintain that they have never violated the
Brown Act, as some have claimed.

The Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, requires that
legislative bodies such as counties, cities, schools and special
districts meet in public when a majority of the members hear or discuss
matters within their jurisdiction.

“Board members may have discussions during meals concerning job
issues of common interest that are outside of the subject matter
jurisdiction of the board as a whole. These would include such matters
as the official activities of individual supervisors, travel planning,
and management of the individual supervisors’ offices. These are
work-related matters, but not within the scope of the Brown Act,” Board
of Supervisors Chairman Steve Worthley wrote in a letter to a watchdog
group. “At no time did members of the Board of Supervisors hear,
discuss, deliberate, or take any action on any item within their
jurisdiction in violation of the Brown Act while eating together.”


Following a series of articles concerning the Supervisors published
by the Times-Delta, the watchdog group, Californians Aware, in February
sent supervisors a letter demanding it publicly acknowledge that it
would no longer hold dining meetings where a majority of supervisors
are present together, or where business within the board’s jurisdiction
is discussed.

“Now and again you hear about council members or board members going
to a restaurant or maybe a tavern after a meeting to wind down, but a
consistent practice of holding luncheons before meetings involving a
majority of the members in a body is unprecedented in my [30 years of] experience,” Attorney Terry Francke, co-founder of Californians Aware,
said.