The Los Angeles Fire Department Board of Rights has closed its hearing into charges of sexual harassment against a firefighter based at a Westchester station despite requests from the accused man that the hearing be open. Once again, a government agency, however well-intentioned, has misguidedly taken it upon itself to decide what the public should know and how the interests of justice are best served. The decision should be reversed before the hearing resumes Nov. 16.
If it goes forward with the closed hearing, the board risks violating firefighter Anthony Morales' rights to due process. Morales himself asked that the hearings be open. He is guaranteed a full, fair and impartial hearing under the city charter, and Morales could have strong grounds to challenge the results of any hearing that does not meet that test. Furthermore, the public cannot judge whether he is fairly treated if it cannot attend the hearing.
In contrast to this rights board decision, the Los Angeles Police Department regularly holds its disciplinary hearings in public. The same day the board of rights made its agoraphobic ruling, the police department was conducting--in public--a hearing involving officers charged with sexual misconduct on the job.
The rights board acted under a provision of the Fire Department manual that gives the board authority to close hearings "in the interest of justice." The provision is unduly vague; it does not define the kind of exceptional circumstances that would merit closing a hearing, especially when the accused wants it open. The Board of Fire Commissioners, which oversees the department, should change that part of the manual promptly.