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Critics Question Legality of County Talks

Government: Retreat may break open meetings law, watchdogs say. Officials deny business is being done.

January 15, 2002|JEAN O. PASCO and DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sixty-five top government leaders from Orange County, including three county supervisors, have been at a Lake Arrowhead lodge holding a three-day leadership conference that critics say may violate the state's open-meetings law.

The $65,000 event, co-sponsored by eight public agencies, is at the UCLA Conference Center, a San Bernardino Mountain lodge that was home to the Yacht Club of Lake Arrowhead in the 1950s. The conference ends today.

Of the agencies represented, five have had a majority of voting members present--including the Board of Supervisors, according to a participant roster.

Only one agency, the Orange County Fire Authority, posted any public notice about the Orange County Leadership Symposium, issuing a Dec. 31 press release that said 125 elected officials were invited to address "future countywide issues."

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 16, 2002 Orange County Edition Main News Part A Page 2 Metro Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Lake Arrowhead retreat--A story Tuesday incorrectly implied that the Orange County Fire Authority used a press release to notify the public of a leadership retreat held in Lake Arrowhead. In fact, the fire authority also issued a separate public notification of the 2 1/2-day meeting that began Jan. 13 and was attended by 17 of the agency's 24 members.

That didn't satisfy Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition in Sacramento, an advocacy group for open government.

Francke said the state's public meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, clearly states that any meeting attended by a board majority of a government agency must be publicized in advance by each entity involved.

Leaders at the Lake Arrowhead symposium said the conference was exempt from the public meetings law because no specific official matters were discussed, only general topics.

But Francke said that although the law permits some unofficial gatherings, such as out-of-county conferences, that applies only if the event is held for the public's benefit. Even then, the law forbids leaders from discussing government business with a majority of their board, he said.

"In this case, I really can't imagine what would be more public or more interactive," he said. "This is not private business."

Representatives from several of the agencies said the Lake Arrowhead symposium didn't qualify as an official public meeting. It wasn't subject to the Brown Act because the public could attend and official business wasn't to be discussed, they said.

"From our reading of the Brown Act and our understanding of the event, we did not think it was necessary to put out a notice," said George Urch, spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Eight members of the 11-member transportation board attended, including one alternate and one nonvoting member.

Among conference participants who attended with a majority of their fellow board members were: Three of five county supervisors, including Supervisors Jim Silva, Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson; eight of 15 members of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency; 17 of 24 members of the Orange County Fire Authority, including four alternate members; and eight of 11 members of the Local Agency Formation Commission, including two alternates.

Officials from three other agencies attended, but not in numbers that constituted board majorities. They included four members of the 13-member San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency, eight members of the 25-member Orange County Sanitation District, and seven of the 39-member local chapter of the League of California Cities.

The remaining attendees were three city managers and several staff members. Some of the elected officials attending serve on two or more of the agencies.

Clare Climaco, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Corridor Agencies, said the Arrowhead symposium was announced at recent toll road board meetings, but no written notice was issued to the public.

"They are talking about leadership development and organizational development," Climaco said. "They are focusing on leadership skills. They were not taking action on anything."

Terry Andrus, general counsel for the Orange County Fire Authority, could not be reached for comment Monday. But in a memo to Fire Chief Chip Prather in August, Andrus addressed whether the Arrowhead conference complied with the Brown Act if majorities of legislative bodies attended.

Andrus wrote that the meeting could be held outside Orange County as long as it was open to the public. He noted, however, that if no public agency had a majority of its lawmakers present, the open meetings laws would not apply.

Among those attending the three-day symposium was Debbie Cook, mayor of Huntington Beach and a new member of the Orange County Sanitation District. She said the discussions focused on esoteric issues of leadership, not specific issues. The only time specifics were discussed, such as the fate of the El Toro Marine base, came "as examples where mistakes have been made in leadership," she said.

"People felt there was a benefit to getting outside the area, to get away and reflect on what they're doing," Cook said.

Longtime Orange County government watchdog Shirley Grindle said the agencies were "playing with fire" by not organizing a truly public event and for meeting so far from the county.

"The course they should be taking is ethics in government," she said.

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