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So they violated the Brown Act: Who really cares?

Alicia Knadler
Indian Valley Editor
5/25/2011

One thing is sure in the life of this reporter: directors of our local special districts will violate the Brown Act, we’ve seen it time and again.

Grand jury investigations have backed this up on more than one occasion, and many of you read our editorial last week about the legal battle over the Tulare County supervisors’ lunch meetings.

So they violated the Brown Act. Who really cares? There’s never been a conviction for breaking this particular state law, according to Terry Franke, author of some of the most recent revisions to the act.

The superior court didn’t care in Tulare; the Plumas County district attorney a decade ago didn’t care when the grand jury found violations and misuse of public money; and I’ve only known one Indian Valley resident who cared enough and was bold enough to stand up for his public access rights and the rights of his neighbors back then.

Floyd Austin was a pain in the seats of many directors, but at least he was willing to risk a public battle.

As for me, I’ve been yelled at and cursed at for my efforts to help defend the public’s right to access, and I’m sure there’ve been a few nasty remarks about those efforts behind those improperly closed doors I ineffectively flailed myself up against.

Most recently it was the Plumas Unified School District board of directors and their superintendent, Glenn Harris.

Not only did he usher them out with false assurances that it was OK for them to meet in closed session, he also condones the use of comment cards people are required to fill out to speak at a meeting.

In December, Californians Aware claimed a transportation authority’s similar requirement was a Brown Act violation, so directors there revisited that policy.

Overall, I find the local school district meetings to be very unfriendly where the public is concerned, or maybe it’s just us defenders of public rights they seem to have an adversarial relationship with.

Special districts here in Indian Valley are more open to the public now, after several violations have been shared with the public and the grand jury.

The chairmen and chairwomen of these boards now open each meeting with a verbal explanation of their policies regarding public comment.

We now know that we are allowed to use the beginning public-comment period to talk to directors about things of general interest within their jurisdiction, and we know how much time we have to do that in.

We also know that we are allowed to ask questions or make comments after directors have discussed an agenda item and before they take action.

Not so at the school district meetings.

One must fill out the questionable comment card with name and topic of comment, plus it must be delivered to the clerk before the end of the public comment period so that the person may speak during that allotted time.

There is no invitation to pick up a copy of the agenda that describes this requirement, and no verbal announcement about the agenda or location and purpose of the comment cards either.

Comments and questions, at least from this reporter, are not welcome at all after that allotted time, which was made crystal clear in a missive Harris shot off to our publisher after the meeting where I tried to ask a question of them before they adjourned into closed session.

Their behavior, while polite in the extreme, was absolutely preposterous, in my opinion, for at past meetings members of the public, directors, Harris and teachers all bantered back and forth during discussion of some agenda items, such as the April mention of school calendars for 2012 and beyond.

Such inconsistency is very inappropriate when one later wants to take a stand against the public right, like Harris did.

But who really cares? He doesn’t, that’s for sure, and it doesn’t seem as if anyone else does either.

In my experience administrators generally make an extra effort to avoid doing the public’s business out in the open, and directors are easily led, just like chicks under the wings of a mother hen.

So even though directors of local legislative bodies are required to be educated about board policies and meeting requirements for public access, they either don’t get it, or they don’t think anyone will care enough to make them stick to the rules anyway.

So, although the public’s right to know is guaranteed by state law, even judges who are supposed to uphold that law don’t seem to care. Do you?

This excerpt from the preamble to the Ralph M. Brown Act says it all for me: “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.”

 

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