The trouble with settlement deals, like the one in Los Angeles firefighter Tennie Pierce's case, is that they permit city council members to discuss hot topics while being shielded from public scrutiny.
Pierce, who is African American, reached a $2.7 million settlement with the city after other firefighters slipped dog food into his firehouse meal. The council, deliberating behind closed doors, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rejected the settlement and the case may go to trial next March. If it does, the public may actually learn something about race relations in the firehouses. Up to now we know little.
The city council gets away with this closed door business because of exemptions in the state open meeting law, the Brown Act, which requires local legislative bodies to conduct their business in public. One exemption permits closed meetings when council members discuss personnel matters, such as firing someone. The other exempts city councils from the open meeting requirement when discussing pending litigation. That was the excuse for dealing with the Pierce matter in private. I have seen it used, and misused, many times in the past.
I knew Brown. His name was Ralph M. Brown and he was speaker of the State Assembly when I was first assigned to cover it for the Associated Press in 1961. He was an attorney from Modesto, a smart, unpretentious, straightforward sort of man, a perfect example of a canny, progessive small town lawyer. He did not like the way the city council in his town and other places did their deals and arranged their votes over dinner, in private clubs or the backroom of a friendly bar. His solution was a law that required that meetings of local legislative bodies would be open to the public--and that the public had the right to participate in them.
The law can be difficult to enforce. As then Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer wrote in a 2003 pamphlet explaining the Brown Act, "although the principle of open meetings initially seems simple, application of the law to real life situations can prove to be quite complex." But Lockyer's lawyers also wrote that exceptions to the law "have been construed narrowly; thus if a specific statutory exception authorizing a closed session cannot be found, the matter must be conducted in public regardless of its sensitivity."
In dealing with the Brown Act, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and his staff have construed it broadly, looking for ways to avoid the open meeting law. The council naturally agrees. Why should council members subject themselves to the possible embarrassment of a public debate?
In addition, the city attorney's office avoids trials. Given a choice, Delgadillo and his staff choose a settlement. Settlements, classified as pending litigation, are discussed in private.
The city attorney could be wrong. The 95-page attorney general's pamphlet lists many Brown Act cases, offering many intepretations of the law. New cases come up all the time. This is an uncertain and changing part of the law. The only certainty is the city attorney's narrow interpretation which, with Tennie Pierce, deprived the city of facts and a debate.
I got a copy of the pamphlet a couple of years ago when I was arguing with the city attorney's office about the way the Brown Act was applied to the City Ethics Commission. They probably have more copies available. Contact the Attorney General's Office Public Inquiry Unit at 1 800 952 5225.
It's odd how things disappear into the City Hall abyss.
That's true of many issues but one occurred to me while I was walking along Westwood Boulevard, toward Wilshire, early in the morning and observed some of the Westside's homeless rousing themselves for another day on the streets. Didn't I read that City Hall was going to do something about the homeless?
The city council has been talking about the 8,000 to 10,000 homeless in Skid Row, just part of Los Angeles County's 82,000 homeless men, women and children. The council's way of dealing with it was to turn the matter over to a committee to study and study and study some more.
Elsewhere in City Hall, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed spending $4.8 million he has scrounged from somewhere in the city budget to creat space in shelters for 373 homeless people. You can find that many homeless by walking a few blocks on Sixth Street in Skid Row any night.
The problem is too big for these small steps. Just read the columns on the homeless by Steve Lopez in the Times and you will understand that these are people with multiple afflictions, not the least of which is mental illness.
The city council committee has a name that gives the impression of thinking big, the Ad Hoc Committee on Homelessness. But right now it is thinking small, trying to find a way of chasing the homeless from Skid Row sidewalks to appease the local business people while hoping to avoid violating the law on arrests, which happens to protect homeless and homeowners alike. Skid Row is bad but it's just part of the problem.
The council members asked the voters for another term so they could finish their many projects. The voters granted their wish. The homeless is a project they should really focus on. Give that committee a staff of experts on homelessness. Let a member of the council adopt homelessness in all its frustrating complexity--not just Skid Row--as a cause. Then something positive may emerge from the City Hall abyss
Asking the Los Angeles city attorney for advice is like a middle schooler asking her parents if she can go to Rosa Rita beach for the weekend with friends.
The answer is No! No! Didn't your hear me? I said NO!
So the outcome was not surprising when the city attorney and the City Council went into closed session to consider the case of Tennie Pierce, a black firefighter who sued the city, charging that a firehouse pal--or enemy--mixed dog food with his dinner in a bout of firehouse hazing.
The council went into closed session. Should the city fight the suit in court? The answer was No!
The city attorney's office advised the council to settle for $2.7 million. Over the years, the city attorney has avoided the courtroom, with its promise of sweet victory always balanced against the danger of humiliating defeat. It's safer to go for a tie. The council agreed 11-1.
Unfortunately for the city, somewhere in the city attorney's presentation to the council, there was a reference to Pierce, himself, participating in firehouse hazing. None of the council members jumped on this. It turned out there were also pictures of Pierce, shirtless and beaming, according to the Los Angeles Times, engaged in hazing half naked men.
KFI radio"s morning "Joh & Ken" Show picked it up. I like KFI. As an occasional insomniac, I listen to the all night "Coast to Coast" show hosted by George Noory and Art Bell. The callers to this show are interested in ghosts, flying saucers and Area 51, which is a place out in the desert where they believe the government engages in secret extra terrestial activity.
Apparently the callers to the "John & Ken" show have more provincial interests. Hearing the hosts blast the settlement, seeing the pictues on the "John & Ken web site, they bombarded council offices with cans of dog food and pelted a councilman's secretary with kibble.
The mayor vetoed the settlement. The council members now have second thoughts or cold feet.
The city attorney's office should have taken a chance in court. I think they teach trials in law school. And if the firehouses are centers of bigotry or just good old boys at play, it all would have come out in testimony. Now, all we can do is rely on John & Ken.
As I was leaving a meeting of neighborhood councils Saturday, a Westside activist came up to me with an idea: Why not forbid Los Angeles City Council members from voting on projects when they have taken a contribution from the developer.
On the surface, the idea made sense, particularly from her. The Westside is being hammered with new buildings and traffic is so bad that even the NIMBYs who have blocked rapid transit there are changing their minds. Her proposal might take development votes out of the political market place. But I wasn't particularly enthusiastic and she looked a bit disappointed.
For one thing, such ban would be too hard to enforce. Suppose the contributor is really a big developer. Would the ban affect share holders and all employes? How would a candidate know that a contribution was from a large stockholder in the Jumbo Developent Corp? How would the contributors know they were doing something illegal by giving to the candidate unless they were obsessive followers of City Hall events, or had an expert campaign attorney in attendance at all check signings? And how would the Ethics Commission staff, already struggling to enforce existing laws, find the time or personnel to undertake this new sleuthing job?
Full public financing of city campaigns is the best solution. Then we wouldn't have to worry about the contributor/vote issue.
Public financing was discussed Saturday while I was at the meeting of the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils at Los Angeles City College. The representatives of several neighborhood councils were supportive. The councils will have a big role in shaping the final version of the public financing proposal we approved at the Ethics Commission last Tuesday. The City Council is to send the proposal to the neighborhood councils for discussion and for suggestions on how to improve it. That would put full public financing in good hands.
Spare us from the reformers. Give me a cynical old pol who at least keeps his or her word. Our ethics commission meeting Tuesday convinced me of that--if I didn't know it already.
We voted 4-1 to send a public campaign finance measure to the City Council. It's good but not perfect. Candidates need to raise a certain amount of money to be eligible for public financing. This measure allows them to raise it in $250 chunks for council and $500 for citywide races. Candidates should probably be allowed to raise the money in $5 chunks, promoting grassroots democracy. Also, the measure will be considered by the council rules committee, the graveyard for most of our proposals. We want the committee to turn the proposal over to the neighborhood councils, which will weigh in with their grassroots ideas.
Our enemies, as it turned out, were the reformers who once had been on our side. The reform organizations adopted a favorite lobbyist tactic, loving a bill to death. You start out by praising it, then poking holes in it and ending by saying it needs more work. In other words consigning it to oblivion.
Susan Lerner, who heads the Clean Money organization and was a campaigner for the recently defeated state public finance measure, was the most vocal of the loving it to death crowd. She didn't like the $250-$500 provision but that didn't seem much of a reason to bury our plan. She thought our staff did a great job. Of course. They were to be praised. Of course. But, she said, the proposal needs more study by grassroots groups. Much more study. Why hurry? The century is still young.
As she described these proposed grassroots gatherings, they sounded like a combination of a West Side encounter group and the Paris Commune. We'll take our chances with the City Council.
I finally can say what I think about Proposition R, the phony term limit/ethics measure and its sponsors, the LA Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters.
Iím vice president of the City Ethics Commission. A city law prevents members of the City Ethics Commission from commenting on measures such as Proposition R after they have been approved by the City Council and been placed on the ballot. I was told that if I disobeyed the city law I faced removal from office and accusations of criminal behavior. I counted up the potential offensesósomething like two felonies and a misdemeanoróand decided to shut up.
Now that the election is over, I guess I can comment. Why am I doing it here? I chose this space because itís hard to get an audience in the mainstream media. Most of the reporters covering City Hall are good but they and their bosses have their own schedules and itís hard for our commission to crack it. So I thought Iíd write about Proposition R and, in the future, other City Hall topics. Council members blog. Why not me?
This proposition was bad, and its advertising misleading. Contrary to what the ads said, the measure extends term limits and weakens lobbyist control laws. Previously, lobbyists had to file reports on their income and clientele if they earned a certain amount a quarter. Under the new law, they donít have to file unless they work more than 30 hours. Hot lobbyists can do their work in less time than that and still make big money. It means the top-drawer lobbyists escape regulation. Lobbyists put this thing together. A law firm representing them wrote the law.
At our meeting Tuesday I am going to ask our staff how it will enforce such a weak law. I am also going to ask the staff to find out the origin of the gag rule law that forbids ethics commissioner from speaking out.
I can understand why the chamber was for Proposition R. The chamber is pretty much a front for the business lobbyists who, with city employee unions, call the shots at City Hall.
But I still canít believe the League of Women Voters would lend its name to a measure that reached a new low in false advertising. Or that the voters would fall for the measure as a way to crack down on lobbyists when, in fact, it loosens things up.
Bill Boyarsky will be posting occasionally about City Hall and politics. His bio can be found here.