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Plumas Board of Supervisors violate Brown Act

Joshua Sebold
Staff Writer
7/21/2010

 

The Plumas County Board of Supervisors violated the Brown Act Tuesday, July 13, by holding what amounted to an unscheduled meeting on a topic that would look relatively significant if placed on an agenda.

The Brown Act is a set of California laws meant to ensure that government decision-making is transparent.

It includes measures that ensure decisions are not made without the public having an opportunity to be present and strives to allow the public to witness discussions that may play a part in those eventual decisions.

By all accounts, there was no ill intent in the board’s decision making but at best several large mistakes made.

The normal meeting came to an end, when BOS chairwoman Sherrie Thrall announced there was no need for a closed session and adjourned the meeting, banging her gavel.

This reporter exited the room roughly 30 seconds later as the board members appeared to be preparing to leave and were engaged in nongovernment-related chit-chat about local news.

In later interviews, Supervisors Robert Meacher and Lori Simpson explained Meacher was checking his e-mail shortly afterwards and discovered a message from Auditor Shawn Montgomery.

The e-mail, which was forwarded to this newspaper before it became aware of these events, was a hyperbole-laden piece of correspondence with the title: “General fund--FIRST time EVER--NOT GOOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The e-mail indicated the county General Fund was out of cash and running in the negative.

In a subsequent phone interview, Montgomery explained that didn’t mean large changes would have to be made to the budget, but some measures might have to be taken to increase cash flow.

She said the county had gone into the negative at times before, and had a relatively large amount of reserves, $1.9 million, to use as collateral for temporary loans and other options.

Her main concern was apparently that the county had never gone into the red this early in the year, having done so in November two years ago and in October last year.

What she was talking about were dry spells of money coming into the county’s coffers, not an actual long-term shortage of money.

Montgomery said the county would get more tax money next week and would have a better idea of whether it should take action. She wasn’t optimistic the money coming in would make up for the county’s current $300,000 shortage in cash.

She suggested such action could include moving furlough days up from winter to the near future or halting all nonessential expenditures in county departments until the county got more money in December.

Back in the boardroom, Meacher had reportedly seen the short e-mail, which made mention of possibly needing to move up furloughs and informed his fellow board members of the message.

At this point, Meacher and Simpson both reported Thrall suggested the board re-open the meeting and call Montgomery into the room to give a report.

Simpson said she asked her fellow board members if they could do that under the Brown Act.

She reported both Thrall and Acting County Counsel Bryan Morris advised the board was allowed to do that.

Feather Publishing disagrees with that opinion.

Jim Ewert, counsel for the California Newspaper Publisher's Association said this was clearly a violation of the Brown Act. “The thing that is so appalling here in that your board or your county counsel didn't see anything wrong in reconvening an already completed meeting. There is no such thing as an innocent or harmless meeting when you are conducting the public's business.”

He said the Brown Act provides several remedies for noticing the pubic before holding public meetings, including adding something to the agenda after it has been posted. The body has to give the reasons and urgency as to  why the item needs to be added to the agenda and then they have to vote on adding that item.

The meeting had not gone on a lunch break or even into closed session, it had been adjourned.

If the meeting had gone into closed session and then the supervisors had decided to add an urgency item to the agenda that likely still would have been a violation because Montgomery had not advised the board that action was necessary.

Montgomery sent the e-mail to the supervisors at 10 a.m., when the meeting began. They decided to call her into the room after the meeting adjourned with no indication immediate action was necessary.

The situation was further complicated by the fact the supervisors’ new recording system, installed to ensure transparency and easy public access to board discussions, was turned off after the meeting was adjourned, as usual, and wasn’t turned back on for the extra board session.

When interviewed, both Simpson and Meacher seemed to be under the assumption that the recorder was on when the board had this discussion, but the board clerk had turned it off at the end of the meeting, as she always did, and reported she forgot to turn it back on when the unusual, impromptu meeting began.

By all accounts the auditor provided the board with a brief report and no action was taken.

A member of the public, Larry Douglas of Portola, was in the hallway when the session occurred and attested all members of the public still in the area were invited into the boardroom for the discussion.

Douglas attended the meeting and said he found the information interesting and important, but didn’t have a feeling the board was trying to hide anything.

The Brown Act may be intended to stave off large schemes of government corruption, but it’s also meant to close tiny little gaps in the public discussion like this one.

There is no penalty for violating the Brown Act unless a member of the public, often a news organization, attempts to pursue the matter in court.

That course is usually to force a public agency to share information.

In this case, this newspaper is merely reporting the violation, as there appears to be little to gain from pursuing it further.


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