By KENNETH F. BUNTING
COLUMBIA, Mo. — It was so ho-hummedly and matter-of-factly reported that few would sense its importance when reading it.
The district attorney’s office found that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had clearly—and rather flagrantly—violated the state’s open meetings law when they met with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in a secret, closed-door meeting last fall to iron out details for moving thousands of state prison inmates to county jails.
This disrespectful scoff at the legal requirements for transparency occurred in the most populous county in the nation’s most populous state. And, as reported in the largest newspaper in the western U.S., there was nothing to indicate even a scintilla of remorse, outrage or apology.
In fact, the district attorney’s finding came across as so inconsequential—both in the six-paragraph version that first appeared on the Los Angeles Times’ website Jan. 30 and the longer version that appeared on the front of the print edition’s second section the following day—that it hardly amounted to an official wrist slap or finger-wag.
The district attorney’s reprimanding letter came four months after the September 26 meeting, with no official action contemplated.
“The district attorney's office did not recommend any punishment, saying similar meetings in the future seemed unlikely,” both the short and longer news items read.
But instead of any such reassurance that the top county officials would obey the law in the future, their top legal advisor, County Counsel Andrea Sheridan Ordin, is quoted as saying that "reasonable people and even reasonable lawyers can disagree." That shamelessly defensive, unrepentant posturing was followed by some lame rationalizations about “a unique and potential threat” that may very well have been part of the supposed justification for the illegal secret meeting in the first place.
For the casual reader who hadn’t been following, there was little in either version of the article that gave any hint that this illegal secret meeting involved a highly controversial issue that had divided the state legislature a few short months ago, had been argued in the court system for 21 years and on which the U.S. Supreme Court had weighed in—with a 5-4 split, no less—a mere four months before the illegal meeting and another four months before the district attorney’s erased any doubts about its legality.
The losers from such shenanigans from people in high places are the people in the state of California, especially those who care about transparency, accountability and open government.
Besides the unavoidable and inescapable suspicion that fear of a public backlash was at play in the illegal decision to meet in secret, think of the cover this gives to officials in smaller jurisdictions inclined towards sneakiness with regard to open government laws. A Google link to the Times’ story about the L.A. supervisors meeting with the governor will probably be better than a Monopoly “get out of jail free” card the next time any official from sparsely-populated Alpine, Sierra or Modoc counties has to answer for an open government violation.
It also comes at a time when another debate is about to begin in the U.S. Congress about the breadth of statutory exceptions that should exist in federal law regarding information that might expose so-called “critical infrastructure” to potential attacks by terrorists and other criminal elements. That, of course, is an area where careful attention and some exceptions are certainly merited. But it is also one where there is grave potential for overreach by those given to keeping secrets and hiding public information for the wrong reasons.
It was an L.A. Times editorial writer who first complained to the district attorney that the supervisor’s meeting with the Democratic governor did not really fit any existing exemption to the state’s “Brown Act,” as the open meetings law is known. So my only criticism of the newspaper is the lack of civic fervor in the two initial news reports about the district attorney’s finding.
However, the county supervisors, their lawyer, and the governor should be ashamed. So far, there are no signs that they are at all contrite. In fact, the county is so far still refusing to release an audio recording of the meeting, even in the aftermath of the district attorney’s ruling that it was clearly illegal.
Ken Bunting is executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is a former reporter and top editor who worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Los Angeles Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among other newspapers.