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Board's Hospital Meetings Probed

D.A. reacts to concerns that supervisors may have violated the open meeting law when they discussed closing trauma unit at King/Drew.

September 24, 2004|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County prosecutors are looking into allegations that the Board of Supervisors violated California's public meeting law when it held two closed sessions to discuss closing a trauma unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Thursday.

Cooley said the inquiry was routine and was based on newspaper accounts that raised questions about the meetings on Sept. 7 and 13. County officials have insisted that the meetings did not violate the state's Brown Act because they concerned a matter involving potential litigation.

By their accounts, the supervisors used the closed meetings to hear and discuss a proposal by the county's director of health services, Dr. Thomas Garthwaite, to close the King/Drew trauma center to relieve stress on the hospital, which is at risk of losing accreditation and federal funding because of lapses in patient care. They said the county could potentially be sued for closing the center.

Cooley said that he couldn't discuss specifics of the inquiry, but that in general, public bodies that hold closed sessions to discuss litigation must discuss only that, not broader policy issues.

"The pending litigation exception is designed to protect the lawyer-client privileges and privacies, but it's a very narrow exception," he said.

"The presumption is, the public's business should be conducted in public," Cooley said. "If you're going to err at all, you err on the side of doing it in public."

He said his office conducts many routine inquiries into potential violations of the open meeting law, only some of which lead to full-scale investigations.

"The difference is, this is a major issue of widespread public interest and concern that affects the public health, potentially, of many, many people and therefore it's an important decision that should enjoy the benefits of as much public discussion and input as possible," he said. "That's what the Brown Act is all about."

Even if he decides to formally investigate, Cooley said, it is unlikely that he will criminally prosecute the board.

Most such investigations lead to policy changes to ensure that there are no further violations, he said.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who opposes the trauma center closure and has criticized the supervisors over the closed meetings, said she welcomed Cooley's inquiry.

"I think there is something to it," she said. "I've always felt like they made this decision unanimously, behind closed doors, at a meeting that was not agendized for that purpose. I think that's wrong."

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