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California lawmakers vote to exclude public from some meetings

Under the proposed legislation, conversations between the governor and local government boards could be held behind closed doors. The bill awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature.

June 03, 2013|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers on Monday voted to allow the public to be excluded from certain gatherings that include the governor and county officials.

The state Senate sent to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk a measure created in reaction to a legal opinion by a county prosecutor. The official said a private 2011 meeting between Brown and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors violated the public's right to see government business being conducted.

At that closed-door meeting, Brown and the supervisors discussed his controversial plan, dubbed "realignment," to begin holding nonviolent felons and certain other low-level offenders in county jails rather than send them to state lockups. The plan followed federal court orders to reduce prison crowding.

Such conversations would be permitted behind closed doors under the new legislation.

The proposal drew criticism from open-government advocates, including state Sens. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin), who say it would shut the public out of important public safety discussions.

"If we start allowing for exceptions in matters of public security, it could be used to justify the concealment of information on anything from disaster preparedness to realignment," Yee said after voting with Gaines and another lawmaker against the bill.

Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) told his colleagues Monday that it adds the governor to an existing list of public officials who can meet in closed session with local officials on certain matters. Those include threats to the security of public buildings, facilities and services and public access to those services.

The governor should not have been omitted from the list, Hernandez said.

"This is a dangerous oversight when confidentiality in matters of public safety is needed," he said.

He noted that California's open-meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, already allows the state attorney general, county district attorneys, security consultants and others to hold closed sessions with local government boards on public security matters.

If the governor signs the legislation, it will mean "he knew … the meeting was illegal" when he spoke behind closed doors with the supervisors in 2011, said Terry Francke, general counsel for the open-government advocacy group Californians Aware.

The bill's author, Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), said an exemption for the governor makes sense because he oversees security agencies, such as the California National Guard.

Bradford said the measure, AB 246, was requested by Los Angeles County. Francke said that reflected poorly on the county supervisors.

"This is how they correct violations of the Brown Act when they're caught in the act: They change the law so it will give them cover in the future."

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