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Panel's King/Drew Talks Assailed

Councilwoman Hahn says the Board of Supervisors violated state law by meeting behind closed doors on the trauma unit's fate.

September 23, 2004|Sue Fox and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who wants to preserve the trauma unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, accused the county Board of Supervisors on Wednesday of breaking state law by meeting privately to reach an agreement to close it.

Several experts on open government agreed that the supervisors, who have a history of forging a consensus in private discussions, appeared to violate the state open-meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.

"The purpose of the closed session is for a body to sit down with its attorney and get advice on a legal issue," said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "It's not to take broad policy strokes on an issue like shutting down a trauma center."

The Board of Supervisors met twice in closed session earlier this month to devise a plan to close the trauma unit at King/Drew in Willowbrook, participants said.

The decision has unleashed intense opposition from politicians and residents of South Los Angeles.

The supervisors have proposed closing the trauma unit, arguing that the resources are needed to run the rest of the troubled hospital.

Some medical experts say the shutdown could lead to the deaths of critically injured patients who would have to travel farther for care.

On Wednesday, Hahn assailed the decision during a City Council meeting attended by Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, the county's health director.

"They went into that secret meeting [and] came out, all five of them, in agreement that they were going to move to close the trauma center," Hahn said. "The public has a right to know how you came to your decision."

In an earlier interview, Garthwaite said he proposed The closure to supervisors during a closed-session meeting Sept. 7 and presented a nine-page report three days later.

The board considered Garthwaite's report in closed session Sept. 13. All five supervisors then endorsed the plan that afternoon during a news conference.

But Newton said the private discussions, which were described on agendas as conferences with county lawyers to discuss "anticipated litigation," may have violated the law.

Government bodies sometimes misuse the law, he said, "to take extremely controversial choices behind closed doors in an effort to shut the public out of those decisions."

Richard McKee, president of Californians Aware, a nonprofit group that supports open government, and Karen Ocamb, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition, also said the board's action may have violated the open-meeting law.

Interim County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner insisted the board complied with the law.

"The Brown Act specifically permits the board to meet in closed session to confer with and receive legal advice from its lawyers," he said. He declined to describe what litigation the county might face other than that "it could include liability arising over the level of care at the hospital."

Hahn said if the Brown Act allowed elected officials to discuss in private any action that could lead to litigation, then "no government body would ever meet in the open."

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who represents the area King/Drew serves, stressed that "no vote was taken" in closed session.

That vote occurred Tuesday, after hours of public testimony. The board voted 3 to 1 to move toward closing the trauma unit, with Supervisor Don Knabe absent and Burke, who reconsidered her position, opposed.

Supervisor Gloria Molina said the board abided by the Brown Act. "Criticism is easy to shell out all day long, but we really would welcome some assistance to solving the dilemma that we're in."

Hahn said she was considering a lawsuit against the supervisors over their closed-door meetings, as well as the possible closure.

The county board, a powerful group of politicians who have worked together for nine years, has a record of conducting business outside the public view.

In 2001, the board voted in closed session to instruct its county counsel to block a ballot initiative seeking higher wages for workers who care for disabled people. The Times, joined by McKee, sued the supervisors for violating the Brown Act.

An appellate court later ordered the county to pay the newspaper's $116,000 legal fees. The supervisors appealed, but, in February, the California Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

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