Dozens of local government agencies across Los Angeles County have silenced critics at public meetings, held secret conferences to hash out important business or taken other actions that violated the state's open meetings law, according to a Times review of the district attorney's records.
Responding to complaints from the public, prosecutors have sent more than 50 letters since 2001 warning government officials that they acted illegally. District attorney's officials frequently threatened civil court action or criminal charges if the violations continued.
Though no one has been prosecuted, some agencies have been required to publicly reverse decisions made in secret. Several elected bodies, including the city councils of El Segundo and, more recently, Lancaster, have received repeated warnings to clean up their act.
Among the actions prosecutors have faulted are the shutting off of a critic's microphone during a meeting and the hiring of a "facilitator" to poll council members about an issue so that they would not have to formally meet on it.
Some city attorneys say they feel they have been unfairly treated like criminals and complain that prosecutors sometimes see violations where none exist. But activists for open government say the warnings help improve compliance and will show that too many local agencies embrace a culture of secrecy.
"It's arrogance and a feeling that they know best and they can do whatever they want," said Richard McKee, an advocate for open government who has filed more than a dozen lawsuits against government agencies. The suits allege violations of the state's open meetings law.
Agencies that act in secret deprive the public of the opportunity to weigh in on important issues, such as development proposals and officials' salaries. Prosecutors say it also prevents the sort of scrutiny that deters officials from benefiting themselves or their friends and supporters at public expense.
For more than 50 years, California's open meetings law, the Brown Act, has required members of city councils, school boards and a host of other local government agencies to conduct business in public. Every state gives the public the right to attend government meetings and limits what officials can decide in secret, experts said. But California's law goes further than some, giving the public the right to speak at agency meetings, they added.
Introduced by the late Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown, a Modesto Democrat, the legislation, enacted in 1953, was inspired by a 10-part series written by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Mike Harris that exposed many local agencies making decisions in secret. Brown then led a legislative committee investigation that confirmed the practice.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's warning letters offer a unique window into local compliance with the state's open meetings law. Activists for open government said few prosecutors, if any, are as thorough or consistent as L.A. County's in following up on complaints from the public about secrecy or censorship.
Juli Potter, an El Segundo resident, was addressing her City Council in 2003 when she was interrupted as she began to question why then-Mayor Mike Gordon was not spending his campaign funds on events in the city.
Gordon, who was running for a seat on the state Assembly, accused Potter of campaigning and told her to stop, according to district attorney's records.
"We'll take you out every time," he warned her.
But Potter continued. Gordon interrupted her again.
"We're done," he finally told her. "Microphone's off."
A videotape of the meeting showed a uniformed officer escorting Potter out of the council chamber, according to district attorney's records.
Susan Chasworth, a Los Angeles County prosecutor, sent a letter telling the council that state law protects the public from censorship of criticism during meetings.
"El Segundo public officials are servants of the people -- all of the people -- whether they hold conflicting opinions or not," Chasworth wrote.
The prosecutor's scolding drew cheers from some regulars at the council's meetings. But Mark Hensley, El Segundo's city attorney, said he believed the district attorney's office was wrong.
The law, he said, protects only comments involving issues that the council has authority over. That would not include how a state Assembly candidate spends his campaign cash, Hensley said. He faulted prosecutors for sometimes reacting too quickly to complaints, adding that they could fix minor problems with a phone call.
"They send that letter and . . . it means they're going to embarrass you," Hensley said. "You feel like they're treating you like a criminal."
Los Angeles County prosecutors began scrutinizing complaints about Brown Act violations soon after Steve Cooley took office as district attorney in December 2000.