A Lesson in Open Meeting Law for Sonoma County Supervisors

The first paragraph of the Ralph M. Brown Act clearly states the purpose of California’s landmark open meeting law:

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, councils and councils and other public agencies of this State exist to assist in the conduct of the affairs of the people. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and their deliberations be conducted openly.

There are three exceptions: litigation, personnel matters and real estate negotiations can be discussed behind closed doors.

There is no exception for politics.

Few things are as overtly political — or as intensely personal for politicians — as redistribution, the decade-long adjustment of district boundaries to reflect changing demographics and demographics. The result can make or break careers. Nevertheless, deliberations must, as the Brown Act says, “be conducted openly.”

Sonoma County supervisors broke the law at least twice last fall when debating their new districts.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch found that supervisors failed to properly disclose their reasons for calling a November 19 closed session and improperly withheld a November 29 memo summarizing comments from council members on the district boundaries.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, then chair of the board, cited anticipated litigation as justification for the closed session, which supervisor Chris Coursey later called “bogus”.

At the time, the council was divided on whether to adopt a redistricting plan submitted by an advisory committee, and Coursey says Hopkins used the private meeting to accuse him of trying to harm him politically. Hopkins denied making any charges.

Ravitch did not comment on the supervisors’ justification for the meeting, which it was later revealed included social media posts alleging gerrymandering and suggestions about fundraising for a lawsuit. However, the district attorney chastised the board for not providing a full account so the public could assess the real risk of a trial.

Our assessment: The county had virtually no legal exposure, and any notes or minutes detailing what supervisors said privately should be made public.

The Nov. 29 memo violated the Brown Act’s “serial meetings” provision, which prohibits officials from communicating with a third party through third parties on matters that by law are supposed to be discussed. in public. The memo was labeled “privileged attorney-client communication,” but Ravitch found no evidence that it was prepared by an attorney or contained legal advice.

Ravitch concluded that violations of the Brown Act did not alter the outcome of the redistricting process. His findings are important nonetheless, because open assembly laws are meaningless if elected and appointed officials are not held accountable.

The district attorney’s findings also come at a good time, as we in the media mark Sunshine Week, a national initiative by the News Leaders Association to highlight the dangers of excessive and unnecessary government secrecy.

There are plenty of reasons county officials are embarrassed here, including Ravitch’s recommendation for additional Brown Law training for supervisors, who include two former reporters and a former president of the local League of Women Voters.

We began with a few words from the Brown Act, and we’ll end the same way: “The people, in delegating, do not give their officials the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what not. is not. let them know. »

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