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County Broke Law on Hospital

Supervisors' secret talks on closing King/Drew trauma unit were illegal, Dist. Atty. Cooley says.

November 06, 2004|Sue Fox and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley concluded Friday that the Board of Supervisors broke the law by deciding in secret to close the trauma center at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

The supervisors forged a plan to close the trauma center, viewed as a last-ditch effort to relieve pressure on the troubled hospital, during two meetings that were closed to the public Sept. 7 and 13. Both sessions were described as consultations with county lawyers to discuss anticipated litigation.

But in a five-page letter, Cooley told the supervisors they violated California's open meeting law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, by "taking action on a matter outside the scope of permissible subject matter during a closed session."

In a sharp rebuke to the supervisors, who maintained that the closed sessions were legal, Cooley wrote: "Violation of the Brown Act impugns the integrity of and erodes public confidence in government. The nature and scope of the Brown Act violations cited herein cannot be minimized."

Prosecutors from Cooley's Public Integrity Division reviewed minutes, tapes and other documentation of the board's closed sessions, all provided voluntarily by the supervisors.

The district attorney found that although a closed-door meeting to receive legal advice was appropriate, the supervisors strayed into a discussion "which should have been aired in an open and public meeting."

Interim County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner, who attended the closed sessions and has previously insisted that the board complied with the law, did not return calls for comment Friday.

Cooley stopped short of demanding that the board rescind its illegal actions, saying there was no evidence "that the board intended to prevent the public from participating in the decision-making process." The decision to close the trauma unit, which all five supervisors announced at a Sept. 13 news conference, stunned South Los Angeles residents, elected officials and medical workers, who had no notice that such a plan was under consideration.

The trauma center treats about 1,800 severely injured patients per year, many of them victims of car crashes, falls, gunshots and stabbings. Some medical experts contend that the closure could lead to the deaths of patients who would have to travel farther for care.

But supervisors and county Health Director Thomas Garthwaite say that closing the trauma unit is the only way to save the rest of the hospital, which is under intense federal scrutiny after a series of patients' deaths.

Opponents of the closure seized upon Cooley's decision Friday to bolster their case that the board's decision was flawed.

"This is an egregious violation of the public trust," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who opposes the closure. Her father, the late Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, led efforts to have the Willowbrook hospital built in the early 1970s.

"The public was not able to weigh in on this decision that impacts so many lives," Hahn said. "I think [supervisors] were so concerned about trying to make a bold decision that they really acted way too quickly. It smacks of a backroom deal."

"It's completely illegal," said Adrian Dove, chairman of the California Congress of Racial Equality, who also opposes the closure. "It's just a slap in the face to the public."

The supervisors have a spotty record of Brown Act compliance. In 2001, they voted in closed session to instruct lawyers to block a ballot initiative that sought wages for workers who cared for disabled people.

The Times sued the supervisors for violating the Brown Act. A state appellate court ruled that the board and the county counsel at the time, Lloyd Pellman, broke the law and tried to conceal it.

The county spent more than $300,000 in taxpayer funds defending itself against the lawsuit.

On Sept. 21, the week after the supervisors announced the plan to close the King/Drew trauma unit, they held a public hearing to formally vote on it. By then, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who represents the area served by the hospital, had changed her position amid intense community pressure to oppose the closure.

Burke said Friday she agreed with Cooley that "certainly we need to be more careful how we drift from subjects." She called on county lawyers to better monitor closed-session discussions to keep the board from moving beyond the Brown Act's limits.

"It's very easy for five people who are talking to get off the subject," Burke said.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that he, too, accepts Cooley's conclusion but asserted that no ultimate harm was done because the board has held a hearing and intends to hold another.

"I take the Brown Act very seriously, and to the extent that any of our deliberations exceeded the Brown Act's limits, it is regrettable," he said. "But it was neither deliberate nor malicious."

The Brown Act imbroglio could color the board's search for a county counsel to replace Pellman, who left in March. Fortner, the interim county counsel, is one of the five candidates.

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