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D.A. investigates Brown Act violations

April 10, 2009|Jack Leonard

Within a month, prosecutors concluded that the Los Angeles Unified School District's board had violated the law by voting in secret to allow the superintendent to explore whether to sell or finish construction of the controversial Belmont Learning Complex. The board's attorneys denied wrongdoing. But the board later rescinded the vote, marking a victory for the district attorney's office.

"One of the best ways to deter public corruption is to have transparency in government," Cooley said recently. "That injects honesty."

Some elected officials said they support open government but believe the law sometimes imposes limits that stifle free discussion among officials.

"They're so afraid of stepping on the Brown Act that no one talks to each other," said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris.

Last year, prosecutors faulted Parris and two other council members for attending a barbecue at the newly elected mayor's home, where they hobnobbed with prospective city commissioners. The law prohibits a majority of a government body from meeting privately to discuss issues within its jurisdiction.

Parris said no city business was discussed and called the event "purely social." But the district attorney's office disagreed and described the event as an illegal meeting. A prosecutor noted in a letter to council members that the city had been warned five months earlier, before Parris was elected to the council as mayor, that it had already violated the law.

At that time, a prosecutor complained that the council appeared to have hired a "facilitator" to meet with each member and develop a plan to remove the city manager. The law prohibits public officials from using intermediaries to help a majority come to an agreement outside of public view.

Parris said he disagreed with the findings about his barbecue but has sought to make the city as open as possible.

"Maybe it's because my first action was to have a barbecue and I got my hand slapped, I'm hypersensitive to it," Parris said. "I certainly don't fault the D.A."

Some complainants, however, fault the district attorney for not doing more. Genevieve Clavreul, a nurse and regular critic of the Board of Supervisors, said some elected officials deserve prosecution for violating the Brown Act.

"I'm glad there has been progress, but I don't think they are aggressive enough," she said.

But criminal charges are nearly impossible to bring, said Terry Francke, a lawyer and author of a guide to the state's open meetings law. Prosecutors must show that an official intentionally violated the law, a difficult standard to meet in court, he said.

"The idea of a letter, firing a shot across the offender's bow, is a very good one," Francke said.

From her office on the seventh floor of the downtown Hall of Records, Jennifer Lentz Snyder pores over meeting agendas, watches videos and reviews other documents to investigate complaints. Snyder, a 20-year veteran prosecutor who has tried more than two dozen gang murders, receives roughly 40 complaints a year.

The number of complaints involving serious violations has decreased in recent years, she said. Snyder attributed the change to the office's written legal warnings -- or "knock-it-off letters," as she calls them -- which she said educate public officials about the law. The goal, she said, is compliance.

"I don't think that most of these people go out there trying to subvert the law," said Snyder, the assistant head of the office's Public Integrity Division. "But the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

Among recent warnings was one Snyder sent to the city of Avalon. The council, she said, violated the law by creating a citizens' advisory board that was not complying with the Brown Act. In response, the council disbanded the board.

In other cases, Snyder has raised the threat of legal action.

In August, Walnut City Council members held a meeting behind closed doors during which Mayor Joaquin Lim was said to have led a council discussion and polled his colleagues about opposing construction of an NFL stadium in the neighboring city of Industry.

Lim said the council did nothing wrong and heeded the advice of the city's attorney during the meeting.

But in her letter to the council in September, Snyder said she was prepared to take agencies to court if they flout the law.

"Such closed door 'secret meetings,' " she wrote, "are precisely the kind of backdoor politics that the Brown Act prohibits."


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