During the closed session part of its Oct. 21 meeting, the Mammoth Lakes Town Council discussed the issue of allowing public access to Wildlife Subcommittee meetings. The Sheet was about to throw a flag on the play, but Councilmember John Eastman beat us to the call, asking Town Attorney Peter Tracy on what grounds.
“Threat of litigation,” was Tracy’s response.
No action was taken or details of the litigation released, but just a few days later, the seas parted and lo and behold, the Town issued a statement saying future meetings would be open to the public and noticed as to their time, place and agenda. That’s great, but it does beg the question, “What took so long?”
Council has been under scrutiny as to its hands-off approach in regard to Wildlife Subcommittee meetings. For the past 18 months, the meetings have been closed to the public, and even Wildlife Management Specialist Steve Searles was only allowed into one meeting to speak for exactly 10 minutes before being dismissed. When Council met during closed session to consider the “threat of litigation,” it’s safe to assume they were also deliberating public access to the Subcommittee’s meetings.
*FYI, the only items eligible for closed session discussion are 1. threatened litigation, and 2. employee/labor/property negotiations.
Further, it’s clear they were forced to come to one inevitable conclusion: they must allow public access. There isn’t any other option.
The Brown Act, which “requires members of city councils, school boards and other local government agencies to conduct business in public,” clearly covers this Subcommittee. Sure, it’s a sensitive topic, but for some reason, the Committee members seemed to think this one could be sheltered from the public. Note to the Committee: arguing something along the lines of “national security” may work in Washington, D.C., but it doesn’t hold any legal water here. Unless we want to end up being investigated by the Mono County District Attorney, as is currently happening in Southern California.
A recent story in the L.A. Times reports, “Dozens of local government agencies across Los Angeles County have silenced critics at public meetings, held secret conferences to hash out important business or taken other actions that violated the state’s open meetings law, according to a Times review of the district attorney’s records. Responding to complaints from the public, prosecutors have sent more than 50 letters since 2001 warning government officials that they acted illegally. District attorney’s officials frequently threatened civil court action or criminal charges if the violations continued.”
Such would probably have been the case in this instance, but the Town dodged a bullet this time when it smartly decided to fold its hand on the Wildlife Subcommittee.
That the committee had been meeting in secret for more than a year is nothing short of a travesty, one that effectively trampled on the public’s rights. And the public, as far as we’re concerned, is due an apology. (Editor’s note: Any bets on whether we’ll actually get one? I mean, Wendy Sugimura still owes voters an apology for running for office in the first place).
Note to public servants, present and future: be careful when it comes to the Brown Act. What passes for “transparency” in the nation’s capitol may be easier to obfuscate at that level, but don’t take that as a go-ahead sign. Ask L.A. County … it’s FAR easier to police on a local level.
Take Mono County, for example … a first-rate example of an entity that goes out of its way NOT to violate the Brown Act. Consequently, the County is not under investigation, or being threatened with litigation for any kind of Brown Act transgressions. All governments, including the fed, should aspire to the County’s open-air Brown Act approach.
What’s more, practicing such an illegal policy of secrecy is also incredibly poor political form, amounting to nothing less than a slap in the face of your direct constituents. Keep in mind that they have a right to access which you and other elected public servants have all taken oaths to uphold.
What’s past is past, but here’s an ominous thought for this Halloween: beware the Brown Act, for the public is watching and you have been warned.