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Supervisors Debate, Delay Leak Rule

Politics: Jail time and a fine--even for themselves--are considered for security at closed meetings.

May 12, 1999|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County supervisors Tuesday hotly argued about a controversial proposal to plug leaks at their closed sessions by imposing jail time for violators, including themselves.

"In my opinion, the county would be better served if we had some enforcement," said Supervisor Jim Silva, who has railed against colleagues for allegedly divulging secret information.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, the usual target of Silva's accusations, said he was "offended" by the proposed ordinance and its failure to address such issues as free speech.

The ordinance, introduced by Silva at the board's meeting, would make any violation a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Violations would be investigated by the Sheriff's Department and referred to the district attorney's office for prosecution.

Other supervisors also questioned the need for the proposal and its impact and effectiveness. They raised questions about the limits of free speech and penalties for false accusations, and decided to postpone consideration of the measure for two weeks.

"I think we're sitting here in a lose-lose situation," said Supervisor Tom Wilson. "If I support this, it means I don't trust my colleagues. If I don't, it means I might divulge information."

Both Chairman Charles V. Smith and Supervisor Cynthia Coad agreed. Smith directed county counsel to find out if other counties and cities have similar ordinances, and Coad asked for a better definition of what behavior is legal.

The attempt to outlaw leaks is the most brash public move by either Silva or Spitzer since a feud erupted between them during last fall's election campaign. Spitzer, who opposes a planned airport at El Toro, had withdrawn his endorsement of Silva, who is part of the board's pro-airport majority. Silva won reelection over an airport foe.

Silva defended his proposed leak ordinance, saying that without it, "why have closed sessions?"

"It's a sensitive issue," Silva argued. "I remember we once had the CEO and legal counsel in a closed session and we were talking about labor contract negotiations. The next day I get someone in my office who quotes what was said by each participant!

"Now how in the world are we going to hold negotiations with our [contractors] when what we say is already out on the streets," he said.

But Spitzer argued that supervisors should have the right to speak out, especially when they believe their colleagues are taking improper actions in closed sessions.

As a former school trustee in Brea, Spitzer said he once felt he had to "speak out" publicly after trustees took what he considered an improper action in closed session. Student grades had been tampered with, and they decided not to change them. Spitzer disagreed.

He also argued Tuesday that supervisors aren't consistent in their outrage over leaks. They weren't angry, for instance, when a department head knew what each supervisor had said about salary negotiations during a closed-door session last fall, he said.

Spitzer said he has a right to state his position after a closed session, but not to divulge what others said or what action was taken.

County Counsel Laurence M. Watson said no provision in the state's Brown Act, which requires the public's business be discussed in public, refers to closed sessions or leaks of information.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group funded primarily by the newspaper industry, said he believes such an ordinance simply isn't necessary.

"They can refer the matter of leaks to the grand jury, or if they have sufficient proof, seek an injunction," Francke said. "[But] they don't have the proof or the spine to push for it because the fact is that they all leak [information] when it suits their interests."

In other action, supervisors gave final approval for tough new sanctions on rogue grading projects. Penalties were increased from $100 a day to flat fines ranging from $250 to $25,000.

The ordinance is effective in 30 days.

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