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Secret Government Meetings In Los Angeles

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California's open meeting laws have been violated dozens of times in Los Angeles County, and the district attorney's office is on the case.

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The state of California has something called the Brown Act, which requires meetings of local public bodies to be open and public, and allows for actions taken by legal bodies in non-open meetings to be voided.The Act also requires any body covered by the act to allow the public to address it with open sign-in.

But various L.A. county area boards aren't obeying this government "sunshine" law, and D.A. Steve Cooley's office is doing some investigating. As the Los Angeles Times reports today:

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...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.

Though no one has been prosecuted, some agencies have been required to publicly reverse decisions made in secret. Several elected bodies, including the city councils of El Segundo and, more recently, Lancaster, have received repeated warnings to clean up their act.

Even a barbeque given by Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris in which a majority of a governing body were present have been targeted by the eager D.A.'s office, leading to complaints that "the law sometimes imposes limits that stifle free discussion among officials." Parris complained that "They're so afraid of stepping on the Brown Act that no one talks to each other."

The result of such Brown Act investigations are generally warnings and sometimes the reversal of decisions made at illegal meetings, rarely criminal charges against politicians in violation:

...criminal charges are nearly impossible to bring, said Terry Francke, a lawyer and author of a guide to the state's open meetings law. Prosecutors must show that an official intentionally violated the law, a difficult standard to meet in court. ["D.A. Investigates Brown Act Violations," L.A. Times]

For some historical perspective on Cooley's war for public openness, see this May 2008 report from the L.A. Times on Cooley's record, which discusses his 156 convictions from his public integrity division. See also this 2002 L.A. Business Journal article from early in Cooley's career, noting his concentration on local political wrongdoing.

All the details on what the Brown Act requires, and who it covers, can be found conveniently at the linked web site from the First Amendment Project.

(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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