By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There are no checks and balances in our county government. If you don’t believe me, just look at the closed-meeting-law dispute of the past few weeks. There‘s a simple reason for this lack of oversight. The Los Angeles County supervisors own the franchise. They ordain the spending. They direct the money. They cut the checks: even for county departments run by separately elected officials -- the sheriff, the assessor and, oh yes, the district attorney. Especially the district attorney.
Yeah. It was none other than our district attorney, Steve Cooley -- fresh from courageously shutting down a small daily paper last month -- who was sprawled out in a full-faced, slobbering grovel before the board members. Here he was to assure them they’d done nothing wrong when they‘d voted in closed session to violate the Elections Code in order to scotch a health-care workers’ wage initiative and the next day, just as dubiously, “voted” in a handful of phone conversations to undo the action. The dirty trick‘s original objective was to incite the health-care union to sue. Therefore, “This action and the attendant discussion were reasonably related to the stated agenda description and thus, lawful,” wrote Mr. Cooley’s deputy, Susan Chatsworth. Sundry other county officials termed this summation a vindication.
That the board happened, that very same day, to authorize the annual budget for Cooley‘s office was held to be wildly coincidental. The money had nothing to do with it, obviously.
The Cooley obsequiousness followed by less than two weeks a $25,000 report from the board’s own hireling outside attorney, J. Kenneth Brown, who affirmed that the board‘s open-meeting policy was thoroughly up to snuff -- despite undenied news reports that the same board was doing 90 percent of its business in secret. Again, money had nothing to do with it, obviously.
Originally, of course, you had County Counsel Lloyd Pellman playing devil-on-your-shoulderangel-on-your-other-shoulder with the board members: both recommending the unlawful-action vote on December 18 and then asking them to undo it the next day. The board, of course, authorizes his funding, too. And Pellman serves at their pleasure.
I knew a rich, lonely man who owned an old oil painting. Late in his life, he decided that the portrait might be a Rembrandt. The funny thing was, the more the rich man paid for his expert opinion, the more likely the “expert” was to say: darned if it couldn’t be a Rembrandt. Once the man died, however, the art world conceded it was junk. You can always pay to hear what you want to hear. That‘s what the county’s been doing, too.
This kind of consultant complicity has -- one can only hope -- maxed out with the collapse of Enron Corp. and its justly moribund accountants, Arthur Andersen. “Give ‘em what they want and the check’s sure to clear” was the consensus of the day, with no real thought to where this might ultimately lead.
But the old man and his picture and even Enron and Andersen are private-sector follies. Where does a legislative body, elected to represent 10 million people, get off hiring or otherwise squeezing acceptance of its legal blunders out of its vassals?
As noted above, there are virtually no independent checks on the board. We know about how that system is supposed to work in Washington. Even down at City Hall, the controller watches the council, which watches the mayor, who watches the controller. But experience suggests that, to turn the heads of the five little queens and kings down at the Hall of Administration, you usually have to muster out the state Legislature or the U.S. District Court.
Which is why it‘s impressive that this current critical attack remains so much a grassroots operation. Attorney Terry Francke, speaking at last week’s board meeting for the California Sunshine Coalition, made a potent case for stronger laws than the extant (and so far, rarely enforced) Ralph M. Brown Act: He spoke in favor of a new county sunshine law, proposed by the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition and mentioned here last month. But he also perforated the board flunkies‘ legalistic arguments for the board’s actions: Even under existing law, he said, there had been many violations -- then and later. Certainly, the December outrages violated standing laws, and so, for that matter, did the vague description of the closed-session meeting, which did not provide the legally required details for the session. It simply called the item a discussion of “personnel” matters.
Now how many times have I seen this particular stunt performed by not just the supervisors, but by other governing agencies? There was the ousting of Director Ben Bycel from the City Ethics Commission seven years ago, the ouster of Director Mary Angle from the Upper San Gabriel Mountains and River Conservancy early this year, and now the non-ouster of Pellman. Each time the action was accomplished in closed session, and the public agenda did not give a clue about the real purpose of the meeting. Since the subjects and officials in each case knew what was going on, their obvious purpose was simply to hoodwink the public.