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.
Now the board‘s toughest critics contend that county government is deeply rooted in unlawful bureaucracy, that its actions are habitually furtive, its decisions largely rendered by unelected deputies who are only now being asked to meet in the public eye.
In addition, these critics argue, Pellman and Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen “sequentially” meet with the five board members via telephone calls. The result, in the critics’ eyes, is a government almost impervious to public input: By the time the folks sign up to speak in the boardroom, the deal is all but done.
This may be an extreme view. But certainly, county matters don‘t get anything like the multiple committee exposure that city proposals and ordinances receive in public hearings held by the L.A. City Council, commissions and committees. Or that similar matters get in the Legislature. On its good days, county defenders can say, the county system works better — with less acrimony and obvious influence peddling — at getting things done. The wheels, it’s argued, turn faster when none of them are squeaky.
But these are not good days. The county this month faces its toughest budget decisions since 1992. It needs all the public involvement it can possibly get.
Which is a role that the current system — with its administrative whisper corridors — arguably doesn‘t provide. The pending hard-times restructuring of the health system, for instance, should be done only after a maximum of considered input from all affected parties. Which doesn’t just mean letting people stand in line to give their three-minute comments in the boardroom. In this case, it‘s going to have to mean these parties — including doctors, nurse unions and intern associations — having a chance to sit down and talk with, not to, government. Because saving public health in this county means the board members are going to have to learn a lot more about their busted-out system than they seem to want to know.
Meanwhile, there have been small improvements: Those deputy meetings are now open; the closed-session board meetings are being taped. And there’s that suit brought by the First Amendment Coalition‘s Richard McKee and the Los Angeles Times, which seeks both a legal determination that the board has been violating the Brown Act and a demand that it not do so again. The suit asks for easier access to all public documents and a prohibition from the board’s ever using “its deputies or other County staff members as intermediaries to conduct meetings or serial meetings in violation of the Brown Act.”
A win for this action would be a good start. Another good idea that‘s emerged from the recent debate has been the establishment of a panel of volunteers to watch over the board’s activities. To make sure the sort of thing that happened last December 18-19 happens as seldom as possible. Or, ideally, never again.
And what of the original issue of that event — the petition seeking a living wage for those perpetually downtrodden county health-care workers who earn minimum wage for taking care of invalids in their homes? Well, the workers finally got those signatures; as their spokesman, Hugh Hallenberg, said: “The voices of 350,000 L.A. County voters have been heard — and they cannot be ignored or silenced by the Board of Supervisors. The rules of the democratic process demand that the Homecare Protection Act of 2002 be placed on the November ballot.”
This week, the board voted unanimously to bring suit to block the measure from the November ballot. This time, they did so against the advice of another outside counsel — Richard Jones of O‘Melveny & Myers.