By Tim Whyte
It turns out, we were all asking the wrong question.
When a College of the Canyons student tried to crash a private meeting hosted on campus by Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, he felt that he should have been allowed to attend so he could hear what Knight had to say about the meeting’s subject: wildfire issues in our area.
But, the meeting was an invitation-only affair, and the student was asked to leave. The rest of his experience and the debate over how and why he was asked to leave the University Center building — and who called campus security about it — was explored in a news story we carried last week, as well as the “Our View” editorial one week ago today, plus an ad nauseum social media thread that drew more than 1,000 comments.
Through all that, we neglected to ask one important, relevant question, which should have come from the community newspaper. After all, I don’t expect a student, whose focus is on campaigning against Knight, to pick up on the question we didn’t ask.
The questions we DID ask included:
Should the meeting have been open to the public because Knight was hosting?
No, he can hold a private meeting. (However, Knight’s critics contend he is ducking public discussion. He might want to do something about that.)
Should the meeting have been open to the public because it was at COC?
No, it’s allowable to book a room to conduct a private meeting at COC. No rules broken there.
Should the meeting have been open to the public because Sonny Perdue was in attendance?
Nope. Cabinet members are not obliged to conduct all of their meetings in public.
BUT… Here’s the question we neglected to ask and answer, until this week, when we developed a follow-up story:
In attendance at the meeting were Santa Clarita Mayor Laurene Weste, Mayor Pro Tem Marsha McLean and Councilman Bill Miranda.
That’s one, two, three, count ’em, three members of the Santa Clarita City Council.
The meeting was not an agendized City Council meeting. It was not advertised as being open to the public, and indeed it was not open to the public, as evidenced by the fact that Germain was turned away.
On its face, that makes it look like a potential violation of California’s open meeting law, and the question we should have been asking was:
“Did the City Council quorum violate California’s Brown Act?”
Confession: The thought crossed my mind briefly last week, but it was a fleeting thought and right now I am kicking myself for letting it fleet right out of the space between my ears. We should have asked it then.
I should have asked it then, as a matter of routine. That’s on me.
But, we’re asking now. It’s the kind of thing a community newspaper should ask: When elected officials gather to discuss issues of local interest, are they meeting their legal obligation to do so in public?
Sometimes, the question is not as easy to answer as it may sound. There are, of course, exceptions to the law that generally requires bodies like city councils to meet in public.
For example, they are allowed to conduct “closed session” meetings on issues like personnel, real estate negotiations and “pending litigation,” an exception that public agencies often abuse. (Back in the ’90s, during my first go-round with The Signal, we had quite a spat with the city government at the time over a series of closed session council meetings they held to discuss strategy to defeat a proposed landfill. They chalked it up to “pending litigation” even though there was no “pending” litigation whatsoever.)
There are other circumstances that allow a quorum to gather without it being a publicly noticed meeting. For example, it’s OK for ceremonial things, like those times when they all go to a ribbon cutting or groundbreaking and pose for pictures with giant scissors or golden shovels. This, while wearing hard hats, as if any of them are going to do actual construction. But, I digress. That doesn’t have to be an agendized City Council meeting, either.
If all five council members show up at a birthday party, that’s OK too — so long as they don’t discuss city business.
And, they can go to conferences and conventions, etc., in which they are not gathering to specifically discuss matters within the city’s jurisdiction.
There’s the rub as it applies to the Knight-Perdue meeting.
The city is arguing that this meeting is akin to a conference or seminar, in which they were discussing things that aren’t in the city’s jurisdiction. As of Thursday afternoon, the city was refusing to let us interview City Attorney Joe Montes about it — which seems odd — but they replied to our query with a written statement that said, in part:
“Meetings held to discuss subject matters within the jurisdiction of the City Council are subject to the Brown Act. However, last Wednesday’s event with Secretary Perdue and Congressman Knight does not fall within the requirements for a Brown Act noticed meeting by the local jurisdiction, as the subject of management, safety and prevention of wildfires on federal lands is not within the subject matter jurisdiction of the City Council.”
I am not an attorney, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so… I think the argument about jurisdiction is a little tenuous. While the Angeles National Forest is not technically within city limits, it basically SURROUNDS the city. I could hit a 9-iron shot from my front yard and, if I hit it straight, it’ll land in the Angeles National Forest.
Last I checked, a major fire in the Angeles National Forest is a pretty big deal for Santa Clarita and its residents. If you live on the outer edge of the city and the forest is burning across the street, city resources will undoubtedly be called upon, and you’re damn straight going to feel like that issue is within the city’s “subject matter jurisdiction.”
It’s a question of interpretation. We talked to a couple of media law attorneys who lean more toward believing the meeting should have been public, but it’s the sort of thing that would have to be tested in court if anyone were so inclined to pursue it.
In my humble, non-attorney opinion, the meeting should have been open to the public because three City Council members attended to discuss a local issue of interest to city residents.
So, I’d say Phillip Germain, after all, should have been allowed into the meeting — just not for the reasons he originally thought.
Do I think the city intentionally did something that might be viewed as a Brown Act violation? No. Let’s be real. This wasn’t a decision-making meeting. It was a photo op with the secretary of agriculture for Knight and three council members seeking re-election.
I mean, they talked about using goats as a wildfire prevention measure. (It just might be silly enough to work…)
If I were advising the city going forward (not that anyone’s asking), I would just make the following suggestion:
When you have a meeting like this one that might raise eyebrows about a potential Brown Act violation, just pick two council members to go. I don’t care how you choose (rock-paper-scissors?) but at least then it’s bulletproof:
No quorum, no pesky questions about the Brown Act.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @TimWhyte.