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Let the Sunshine In 

Wachs pushes to end city secrecy

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
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Photo by Kathleen Clark

About 25 years ago came a quiet revolution in local politics. Previously, governing agencies had tended to hold decisive get-togethers out of the public eye. Many deeds were decided upon and done that might not have been done at all had anyone out of the power loop been observing the process.

Back then, local politicians sometimes even ordered reporters to leave public meetings under threat of arrest. This was when most of a city’s or county’s business could be decided in the backroom of a roadhouse. Ultimately, the reaction to this long-standing phase of affairs was convulsive: The result was an outburst of "sunshine laws" that forbade secret discussions and most closed-door meetings. California’s sunshine law is the Ralph M. Brown Act.

At first, such statutes were strictly observed: Officials could go into closed session to discuss litigation, real estate transactions or personnel matters, but everything else had to be open to the public. In one underpopulated little county I used to cover, lawyers actually determined that for one county supervisor lawfully to invite his colleagues to his wedding, the nuptials had to be declared a public event. (Since this supervisor was a popular bartender, he didn’t mind the extra conviviality.)

By the early 1980s, however, local politicians discovered that sunshine laws weren’t being rigorously enforced. And after all, it’s so much easier to talk about business without the public — or the press — looking over your shoulder, isn’t it? So obedience to the open-meeting laws began to slip. It’s been slipping ever since, in one particular way: A panel goes into closed session to discuss something it gets to discuss in secret, and then goes on to talk behind closed doors about matters it really ought to be discussing in public.

Cut to last week and a certain Los Angeles City Council closed session. Under discussion were matters involving the manner in which the police chief gets to discipline officers. But it was also, typically, one of those closed-session meetings in which the discourse wandered away from the agenda into matters that ought to have been discussed in open session.

Now the difference between this and most other such closed-session council meetings was that it happened to be chaired not, as usual, by council President John Ferraro, but by council President Pro Tem Joel Wachs. And Wachs had spent much of his previous working day testifying before a Los Angeles County grand jury.

Not, let us hasten to add, under subpoena. Wachs was speaking as a friendly party in a fact-finding session the panel was holding on the ongoing problems of the local political process. And one of the problems that Wachs mentioned to the panel was the perennial abuse of the Brown Act.

So when he mentioned the next day that he’d had this discussion with the grand jury, it caught his colleagues’ attention. And when Wachs suggested that the tape of this particular closed session be released to the general public, minus the actual closed-session business, the council favored the idea unanimously.

Afterward, Wachs explained, "I wanted the council to stop using the Brown Act as an excuse for doing in secret what it should do in public."

If Wachs can effect this change, the public and the press are going to have some more insight into what goes on in city government. Maybe the council will simply have to spend less time behind the doors and more time discussing public matters in public.

Maybe. That tape hasn’t been released yet, and getting it out is taking time. This kind of openness is so unprecedented that staff officials weren’t yet sure how to deal with it. Assistant City Attorney Gail Weingart told me Friday that the tape will probably have to be transcribed, then "redacted" (i.e., censored) of its lawfully secret discussions. And then released as a transcript. She said that her office was working out the appropriate arrangements with the City Clerk’s Office. What doesn’t yet seem to be clear is whether this release will become a routine arrangement or something that will be done only on specific request.

So far, the Daily News and the Times have requested transcripts of this one closed-session meeting. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind getting one myself. A few such requests — and their commensurate expense — might just cure council members of their long-established habit of using confidential meetings furtively to discuss nonconfidential matters.

But I wouldn’t count on it just yet.

Blue Line Blues

"When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout," the old song goes. And if you happen to be an old-line radical, attacking someone who disagrees with you, what you may shout is the famous R-word: "Racist."

Thus Eric Mann, point man for an organization somewhat imprecisely called the Bus Riders Union, on the long-proposed Pasadena Blue Line. To Mann, the destiny of the poor and working classes of this city is to ride buses. Therefore, commuter rail lines are for the rich, and financed to the detriment of the poor. A "racist trick" was how he characterized plans to pay for that Pasadena Blue Line, because he’d rather see that money pay for buses.

Now, an argument along these lines can be made against subsidies of the successful Metrolink exurban routes. These do mainly benefit people affluent enough to live out of the city. But it’s inner-city rapid rail that Mann’s castigating here as a KKK plot. In particular the Pasadena Blue Line, an extremely sensible alternative transit system that would run on an extant rail right of way from downtown up the Arroyo Seco. Yes, it would end in Pasadena, which has its affluent population segment. But on the way there, it also passes through the very unaffluent, Eastside working-class areas of Chinatown, Lincoln Heights and Highland Park, while passing near to my old home-hood of El Sereno.

In other words, for most of its 12-mile length, the Blue Line would be the Barrio Special, serving far more people of color than Anglos. And it will be faster than any bus line serving the area.

I haven’t been able to get the tentative Pasadena Line ridership breakdown, but the MTA’s Ed Scannell said that the Anglo proportion of current aggregated Red, Green and Blue Line ridership is only around 26 percent, which corresponds with what I see every time I ride them. But maybe what Mann’s trying to say is that light-rail transit is racist in that it is anti–white guy.

The Final Frazzle

Nuance tells all: In a Times story last week on the Mayor’s Office’s sudden "discovery" that the new charter would not kick in until 2001, it says, "The long delay in imple-mentation angered his [Riordan’s] aides."

In other words, not the mayor himself. One of these aides also told Timesman Jim Newton that it was aggravating that the provision "came to light" while the mayor was out of the country. (In fact, he was inspecting a much-touted bus-lane transit system in the Brazilian city of Curitiba.)

Actually, there’s some hefty disingenuousness here. Until last week, I had never heard anyone even suggest that a new charter might come online before mid-2001. This was because its big-ticket items, such as reorganizing the city-controller and attorney offices, and expanding the City Council, would take years to implement, while many smaller items were contingent on the larger propositions. "There’s always been an assumption that this was about the future," said director Raphael Sonnenshein of the Appointed Charter Reform Commission, which had finally set the 2001 date in print.

Beyond that, Riordan himself has repeatedly made it clear that it’s his successors, not he, who will benefit from charter change. Or so he’s allowed the entire city to believe.

But now the current gang of mayor’s kids want to get their hands on the transition process. Could it be that Riordan’s staffers, realizing they’ll have little to do during the mayor’s lame-duck years in office, have now concluded they might as well bring their long-demonstrated governmental expertise to bear on implementing the new charter?

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