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Board Meetings Ruled Legal

July 29, 2005|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

A judge has ruled that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors did not break the state's open-meeting law when it decided behind closed doors last year to shut the trauma unit at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

The finding contradicts an earlier one by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley that supervisors violated the Ralph M. Brown Act when they came to a consensus to suspend trauma services after two closed-session meetings and without a formal vote.

The ruling was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Los Angeles Times and Richard McKee, an open-government activist. The suit accused the board of violating the law and demanded that the county make public its tape-recordings and other records from the meetings.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe concluded that supervisors were justified in discussing the unit's fate as they grappled with how to deal with threats from federal health inspectors to pull about $200 million in funding.

Supervisors, he wrote in his July 22 ruling, were told that they could not cure the hospital's problems through an agreement with the U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services "unless King/Drew gave up its trauma center."

The county's chief lawyer, County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr., welcomed the decision as a vindication for the supervisors, who he said had been dealing with tough legal issues as they tried to keep the hospital open.

"Nothing was done to discuss something in private that should have been done in public," Fortner said. "There was no purposeful attempt to violate the Brown Act, that's for darn sure."

Susan Seager, a lawyer representing The Times, said the paper would consider an appeal.

"We respectfully disagree with the court's conclusion," she said. "The purpose of this litigation was to give the public the maximum amount of information about the board's decision, discussions and vote to close King/Drew's trauma center."

Supervisors, who have been accused in the past of failing to comply with open-meeting laws, discussed the fate of the trauma unit at closed-session meetings Sept. 7 and 13. Both sessions were described as consultations with county lawyers to discuss anticipated litigation.

At the meetings, the board discussed entering into an agreement with federal health officials to fix the hospital's problems. To help with that mission, county lawyers argued, supervisors decided that they ought to close the trauma center.

News that the board had reached a consensus came after the second meeting and sparked an outcry from doctors, from politicians and from residents who live near the Willowbrook hospital, just south of Watts.

Prosecutors in the district attorney's Public Integrity Division investigated complaints about the board's actions. They concluded that supervisors improperly "reached apparent consensus" on the trauma unit's fate and strayed into a discussion "that should have been aired in an open and public meeting," according to a Nov. 5 letter of rebuke they sent board members.

But prosecutors conceded that there was no evidence that supervisors had intentionally tried to break the law. The board formally voted to shut King/Drew's trauma unit at a public meeting Nov. 23. The county completed its closure in March.

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