The appointments of U.S. ambassadors and justices of the Supreme Court might be subject to public debate, but not the appointment of the top cop in Los Angeles.
That was the verdict of the city Police Commission early this week as it continued — in private — its review of LAPD Chief Bernard Parks’ first term in office.
Commissioners on Monday said they were bound by the opinion of the City Attorney‘s Office, which held that the panel could not conduct its review in open session, or even hear Parks make his case for appointment to a second five-year term.
But an official with the City Attorney’s Office suggested Tuesday that the decision was exclusively political, as the law clearly allows open hearings on the question of the chief‘s job tenure. “The Police Commission decision to close the hearing on Parks was a policy decision on their part,” said Ana Garcia, communications director for the city attorney.
The city attorney himself, Rocky Delgadillo, had nothing to say, as he recused himself on the question when he came out publicly in support of Parks weeks ago. Delgadillo said it was a matter of conscience, but his statement set the stage for much of the political maneuvering that has ensued.
Mayor James Hahn joined the fray early this year when he took a public stance against retaining Parks for another five years. Parks has been campaigning to keep his job ever since, and last week asked the commission to hold his evaluation in public — or at least to allow him to defend his record in open session.
It was a canny political move by a chief who has for years relied on broad interpretations of such exemptions as officer-privacy rights to limit disclosure of official misconduct and other basic information about the LAPD. Parks is routinely criticized by department watchdogs, but has strong support among African-Americans, a coherent voting block coveted by politicians across the city.
In the event, Parks had it both ways: He rallied his supporters against the “unfair” process, and avoided having to answer tough questions in a public forum. Parks was smiling broadly as he left the session Tuesday.
The drama played out early this week at Parker Center, the glass-walled police headquarters where the Police Commission announced Monday that it could not hold open hearings to decide the fate of the chief. Commission Executive Director Joe Gunn said the panel’s hands were tied by a ruling from Assistant City Attorney Patricia Tubert, who held the commission needed to meet privately to discuss all issues bearing on the chief‘s job. But it’s not so simple.
Tubert made brief remarks at the meeting, agreeing that exploring such sensitive issues as officer-involved shootings would be “impossible” in a public hearing. Her ruling — until it was clarified Tuesday — appeared to contradict the Brown Act, the state‘s open-meetings law, which expressly provides that a police chief or other top official can request an open hearing for a job review. But Tubert could not be questioned further as she ducked out a side door and could not be reached for an interview.
Then on Tuesday, Tubert clarified her ruling in writing to commission President Rick Caruso. In the letter, marked “Confidential Communication,” she wrote that the commission could conduct the entire proceeding in public, or deal with issues which raise privacy concerns in a separate closed-door session.
“I think it is necessary to clarify that I did not, and would not, advise you that the Police Commission meetings in their entirety must be conducted in closed session,” she wrote. “In fact, I specifically stated that I was not directing the Commission to conduct the entire hearing in closed session.”
But the commission, and Mayor Hahn, made it clear Tuesday they want to keep the process out of the public eye. Asked if the city attorney had left them any discretion on the question of open meetings, commission President Rick Caruso and Vice President Rose Ochi both insisted they had no choice. And during an interview on KTLA television, Hahn took the same position. “It would have been better to have it in public, but I think at the end of the day the commission wants to listen to the city attorney and follow that lawyer’s advice.”