Brown act, buses and government secrecy

 

When Palmdale City Council members meet tonight they will consider a proposed amendment that, if approved, changes the way Los Angeles County, Palmdale and Lancaster operate the Antelope Valley Transit Authority behind the scenes, our staff writer Alisha Semchuck reported.

The biggest change in the proposed amendment would be the elimination of the requirement mandating all committees formed by the bus agency's board to abide by the Ralph M. Brown Act. The Brown Act is California's open meeting law, ensuring public access to meetings where government agencies conduct public business.

Based on the proposed change, the AVTA board still would have standing committees that must follow the Brown Act, but it also could form temporary ad hoc committees, which sidestep the Brown Act requirements, according to Mayor Jim Ledford, who said he opposes the revision.

Lancaster Vice Mayor Marvin Crist, the AVTA vice chairman, said he recommended the change to facilitate the workings of the transit advisory committee, comprising two staff members from Lancaster, two staff members from Palmdale and two staff members from Los Angeles County.

The staff members have no decision-making authority, Crist said.

"Our goal is to become more effective and more efficient," Crist said. "The bottom line is these people are staff. Staff should not be under the Brown Act."

Here is one way that it works, possibly. An ad hoc committee is formed to keep a plan, initiative, or big move under wraps until its first airing is for a vote. Forget the intramurals between Palmdale and Lancaster city hall establishments for a moment, and just think about open government, the doings of any government body.

Here is how it goes: Open government: Good. All that stuff moved around on the quiet, behind the veil and dropped on the public in a consent agenda vote about which nothing is discussed: Bad.

This is what Ralph M. Brown had in mind when he constructed the legislation that requires public business to be done in public. Brown was one of those rare birds in the Legislature who actually understood that government is for the people, not the other way around.

Julie Austin, the AVTA executive director, also participates in the board meetings. She said the proposed amendment won't remove Brown Act requirements from the transit advisory committee.

"This allows an ad hoc (committee) of the board to meet, without being (under) the Brown Act," she said.

The Brown Act was enacted in 1953 and strengthened in more recent times by a vote of all Californians. Its history emerged from city councils, county boards and other local government bodies that were avoiding public scrutiny by having secret "workshops" and "study sessions."

Such "ad hoc" committees are truly ad hoc, and quite often a bad idea, resembling those "study sessions" and "workshops" that were employed by public officials to keep the public's business private until the last minute. To the degree that they can meet and be shielded from scrutiny, all their handiwork is immediately suspect.

For example, the AVTA has taken action to acquire electric buses made by the new BYD manufacturer from China, buses that are built in Lancaster. The agency opted for these buses over less expensive buses that use natural gas.

Fair enough. But it is also just a matter of record that Lancaster has an enormous vested interest in BYD's success. Actually, the entire Valley has good reason to want this clean-energy, locally built product to be a success.

To the degree that the government agency buys anything and operates behind closed doors, out of sight, and off the radar of Brown, it immediately raises questions about how the decision was arrived at, and who benefits.

This is something, for example, that any involved agency would want to have way out in the open in order to prevent the perception that something might be going on. It is in all the agencies' interests to have it out in the open.

In order for the change to be implemented, Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said the joint powers agreement under which the bus agency operates requires all the entities to approve it. He plans to vote against it at tonight's council meeting.

"I don't see a problem with Lancaster passing it," Crist said. "We're all for being more effective and more efficient."

Nothing wrong with effective and efficient. Staff do most of their work before the recommendations get placed on the agenda, so they probably have little need for an "ad hoc" committee set up to skirt Brown.

What is most effective for the public is the simple ability to have the workings of its government proceed without the filters and high walls of secrecy. Here is the preamble to the Brown Act, and it means just what it states:

In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

To the degree that a government body's action support these principals, the government body improves its case for being open and a good steward of the public's trust. To the degree it drifts away from that, the opposite is the case.

 

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