A wild and assorted flock of chickens — in every plumage, weight and breed — came home to roost before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last week. All of them were as mad as wet hens, and none of them were pleasant to deal with.
But the habitually aloof little kings and queens of the nation’s most populous county had no choice but to deal with each and every one of them, and politely. Most supervisors run for re-election unopposed, answerable only to one another for votes. So the board constitutes perhaps the closest thing California has to a hereditary government, bereft of balances and checks. But this time, the members were finally being held answerable for their unanswerable status.
Because they‘d all just been caught out doing business under the table. Oh, nothing garishly illegal, perhaps. But merely perhaps, because, as the Los Angeles Times reported, 90 percent of all the board’s recent decision making was done in closed meetings, outside the public eye. And suddenly, the many categories of people who‘d separately put up with this sort of thing for so long showed up together to tell the board to cut it out.
The critics were there: Patt Morrison of the Times spoke for the Press Club in quite the loveliest of all the pink hats I’ve seen her wear; grumpy gadfly Howard Watts (bless him: I didn‘t even know he was still alive) shouted invective in his trademark white T-shirt; and an army of union members in shirts of the brightest purple also showed. The union members, health-care workers belonging to Service Employees International Union Local 434b, had the latest, most publicized gripe: the board’s behind-closed-doors strategizing to thwart a ballot initiative that would increase their wages.
They joined hundreds of others in the flock of the board‘s long-disdained: AIDS activists who’d been charged hundreds of dollars for access to case statistics; probation officers kicked out of meetings where their futures were being discussed; coastal activists abashed at the furtive chumship between the board and the omnipotent business interests who control the Marina; welfare activists protesting that a foster child‘s death was discussed in closed session on the strange grounds that her posthumous privacy might be offended; even Cheryl Romo of the Daily Journal, who’s built a fine career on probing children‘s services, objecting that she’d been told by county officialdom to submit all questions in writing.
What put the county on the defensive was the Times‘ March expose of the board’s December 18 closed-session effort to deep-six 434b‘s pay-raise initiative. But the problem of board secrecy has been with us for a very long time. In all, more than 50 people spoke during Tuesday’s meeting. They testified that they felt ignored, and a lot of them had been. They felt shut out, and that had happened too: The board had been far too prone to handle their concerns outside of their view.
That‘s the problem with abuse of power: The more you abuse it, the easier it gets. Now the board suddenly had to reverse its attitude. As Genevieve Cavreul, one of those doughty citizens who attend board meetings to exercise their right of free speech (in her case, on county health matters) put it, ”I hope this is a first step in rebuilding understanding and trust between you and your constituents.“
It was also a first step in getting the board out from under the threat of litigation. This probably explains the big hurry: The Times had sued the members, alleging that their closed-meeting obfuscations wantonly violated the open-meeting laws known as the Ralph M. Brown Act. The county district attorney — whose budget the board gets to review — was even contemplating an investigation. Suddenly it looked as though the old truism — that no politician ever spent a day in jail for violating the Brown Act — might not hold true forever.
So the board voted unanimous approval of nearly all of the remedial sunshine motions its members had proposed. Never did you see a reigning body in such a hurry to distance itself from its immediate past. From now on, closed meetings will be taped (thanks to a Gloria Molina motion). Policy meetings among the board deputies will be open. All pertinent papers involving pending agenda items will be posted on the county Web site. (Presently, to read these materials, you, as a member of the public, have to go downtown and seek out a certain mysterious little two-drawer file cabinet that sits among myriad identical cabinets in the third-floor board office.) And here’s something even more useful: Now, anyone with Web access can dial up a complete board-meeting transcript on that same Web site within 24 hours of any given board meeting. All these latter motions were proposed by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who, it appears, has been the secret swinger of open politics all along.
All of these are worthy improvements. The group calling itself the Sunshine Coalition (it includes the local Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists and Common Cause) further proposed a new ”Sunshine Act“ to make board members more accountable and open-meeting laws more enforceable. The proposed reform would require proper agendizing of items and strictly defined conditions under which meetings may be closed to the public. In other words, it would ask the board to approve rules that would further institutionalize the openness in government aimed at by the Brown Act. The First Amendment Coalition‘s Richard McKee (co-plaintiff in the Times suit) suggested that the resulting, better-informed public might actually make the board’s job of governing easier.
But a motion by Molina and fellow Supervisor Don Knabe referred the proposal to ”outside counsel.“ This, unfortunately, consists of the law firm of Brown, Winfield — which, in my recollection, often represents cities accused of Brown Act violations. Supervisor Molina‘s reasoning was that Brown, Winfield would be a fairer pick than County Counsel Lloyd Pellman, who’s being scapegoated for the December 18 meeting fiasco and is hence officially excluded from this dialogue. According to spokeswoman Karen Ocamb, the Sunshine Coalition wanted its proposal looked at by a less conflicted outside attorney, one without previous contractual ties to the county, especially if that firm was known for fighting on the non-access side of the access issue. But the coalition couldn‘t manage to persuade the board.
This Sunshine Act would certainly help. It might help even more if the press corps — including me — did better at covering county politics. The Times’ Evelyn Larrubia deserves credit for exposing the December malefactions — but she was aided, in that one instance, by a county officialdom that, while officially denying her crucial meeting documentation, efficiently and accidentally sent it along anyway. Otherwise, there are far too many empty press offices in the Hall of Administration. And despite all that yapping about the county‘s withholding documents, you’d never guess this was a problem while strolling through the Hall of Administration press room — where last week I saw a 3-foot-tall stack of bundled and unread press copies of county paperwork, some of it nearly a year old, covering a 20-square-foot tabletop.
Nonetheless, last week‘s events represented a big victory over Forrest Gump government. That’s the one in which you never know what you‘ll get next, because you never know what’s going on. And, of course, you don‘t really care, do you? Well, why should we? We Angelenos, we’re all governmental Gumps. That‘s why so few of us vote, right?
But that wasn’t what you saw last week. You saw what philosopher John Rawls calls ”a well-ordered society.“ Which is the opposite of docile or regimented: ”It means a society whose members — all of them, individual men and women of every creed, class and background — are prepared to raise awkward questions about how things are organized.“ These people filled the boardroom.
”The board reforms were so long overdue,“ commented Erwin Chemerinsky, the constitutional expert over at USC who helped build our new city charter. Chemerinsky also allowed that he hadn‘t realized ”just how bad things had become in the county.“ So he quoted an even greater expert on the Constitution than he — James Madison — who said: ”A popular government, without popular information, or a means for acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. People who wish to be their own government must arm themselves with the power that knowledge can give.“
Now, if the supervisors follow through on their pledges and resolutions, we are being granted the armament of knowledge of our largest local government. It’s up to us all, in and outside the media, to make the most of this knowledge, as it has always been.