OPEN MEETINGS -- Californians Aware co-founder Richard McKeenewly named the organization's Vice President/Open Government Compliancehas sued the
Tulare County Board of Supervisors to end its habit of lunching together without complying with the Brown Act when a voting majority is present and charging the meals on county credit cards, designating them as "work-related."
McKee is asking a judge to order the board to conform to the
Brown Act whenever a majority of the members congregates to "hear,
discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item that is within its subject
matter jurisdiction," reports Valerie Gibbons in the Visalia Times-Delta.
Jean Rousseau, the county's administrative officer, said he
could not comment on the matter because he had not seen the lawsuit. Kathleen
Bales-Lange, Tulare County counsel, did not return a call seeking comment.
McKeesent supervisors a "Demand for Correction"
in late February, asking the board to end its practice.
A January investigation by the Times-Delta found 30
instances where a majority of supervisors known as a quorum met for a meal
during the first seven months of 2009.
All five board members met for a meal at least 11 times
during the first half of 2009. A series of state laws, known as the Brown Act,
makes it illegal for the board to discuss business outside a publicly announced
meeting when a quorum is present.
The county suspended the practice Tuesday until a new meal
reimbursement policy could be developed.
But board chairman Steve Worthley blasted McKee in a letter
March 5, saying that the board never violated the Brown Act and that
allegations to the contrary are "offensive."
He said the lunches serve an important purpose "of
fostering collegial relationships between the board members."
"This helps ensure that the board operates most
effectively and efficiently at public meetings," Worthley wrote.
"Individual board members naturally disagree on specific matters and
issues, sometimes quite strongly, and socializing on occasion during mealtime
helps promote more effective relationships between board members."
McKee's attorney said in her petition that Worthley's
response clearly illustrates that the board will continue to perform in a
manner that does not conform with the Brown Act.
Although supervisors indicated on credit card receipts that
the meetings were "work related," board members vehemently deny that
they discuss county business during meals.
The newspaper said in an editorial yesterday that a proposed new policy ratifying the practice would not solve the problem.
Tulare County supervisors apparently believe the only thing wrong with their practice of eating meals together in private is that they haven't put it in writing.
So they figure they will write it down, and everything will be legitimate.
We vehemently disagree. The continuing practice of supervisors dining together violates the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law. We have objected to these supervisor lunches for years. From time to time, supervisors have said they have ceased the practice. Records show they have not. Now they are attempting to rationalize their questionable behavior.
Supervisors can protest that they are not discussing public business. The fact is: Nobody but those at lunch would know. That's the reason for an open-meeting law in the first place.
An examination of the receipts submitted by supervisors for reimbursement over the first seven months of 2009 revealed that supervisors charged 228 meals in that period. That's about three meals a week. On 30 of those occasions, the records indicated that at least three supervisors met together. That's a majority, and that's illegal.
California law prohibits elected representatives from meeting as a quorum unless the meeting is open to the public in an accessible area, announced in advance and noticed with an agenda.
Supervisors and County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau have defended the practice by saying that no county business was discussed and that meetings are part of a process of team building.
Supervisors on Tuesday directed county staff to put their practice of dining together into a written policy.
Sorry: Whether the policy is written, oral or implied, it violates the Brown Act. Supervisors ought to know that. It appears, however, they intend to codify a practice that is illegal. That will not absolve them of their responsibility to conduct the public's business in public.
We will never support such a blatant attempt to circumvent the law.
The crux of the matter is the assurance from the supervisors that what they are doing does not violate the Brown Act. The county counsel's office backs them up on this. Their contention is that, as long as they do not discuss county business, they are not violating open-meetings laws, no matter how many of them are present or when and where
Supervisors and Rousseau give us their word they never talk business at lunch. That's preposterous on the face of it. The Brown Act prohibits elected officials from gathering in private because it allows them to conduct business in private. They can say that's not what they're doing, but how would anyone know? There is no record. We simply have to take their word for it.
The law does not operate on the honor system. Few things in life do.
If police find a person after hours in a store from which merchandise is missing, they will not take the person's word that they didn't do it.
Employees don't get paychecks from their employers simply by assuring them they did the work.
We are not so naive as to take everything that a politician tells us at face value. The public doesn't need to take the word of their officials; they can verify it, thanks to the Ralph M. Brown Act.
We appeal to supervisors again to reconsider their decision and use the good sense we know they can employ: Put yourselves in the position of the public. If the people entrusted to make decisions for you met regularly in private, would you accept their assurance that they never discussed anything about their work?
The fact is that it doesn't matter if supervisors never, ever discussed county business while they were at lunch. The opportunity they create for themselves to do so is what violates the Brown Act. The county counsel's office can split hairs about what is actually discussed, but it should know that that is immaterial. The Brown Act prohibits the private meetings themselves.
County staff will return with a policy in a few weeks. Meanwhile, county supervisors said they would suspend their practice of dining together. Again they miss the point: The lack of policy isn't the problem; the meetings are the problem.
We urge county officials to make a significant change of policy. If they do not and continue to insist on the legality of the private meetings, we can come to only one conclusion: County supervisors don't get it. Again.