From its opening words, California’s open meeting law, commonly known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, declares the people have the right to know what their public agencies are up to and how and why they make the decisions they do.
The Brown Act begins, “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.”
We the people do not relinquish our sovereignty or our right to know to the people elected or appointed to conduct the people’s business.
Unfortunately, that system of transparency broke down recently when the Lassen County Board of Supervisors ratified an agreement with the Honey Lake Valley Grange to settle a dispute with the county regarding the county’s conduct in the permitting process used during improvements to the grange building near Johnstonville.
The grange alleges its building was damaged because the county did not ensure the contractor had the proper license before issuing building permits for the project. It also alleges the county signed off on work done without a proper permit and did not require engineered plans before issuing the permits to the contractor. After filing a complaint with the county and having it rejected, the grange filed a $75,000 suit against the county in Lassen Superior Court.
The two parties went back and forth seeking a resolution to the conflict for several months.
At one point, a letter from the county’s insurance company reported the county had given the insurance company the authority to offer a $10,000 settlement.
Another letter from County Administrative Officer Martin Nichols late last month offered a different resolution with the county paying $10,000 to the contractor that would make the repairs. As a condition of that agreement, the grange would dismiss its lawsuit against the county.
The grange dropped its lawsuit, a deal was struck, checks were cut and the matter was resolved.
Unfortunately, all of this was done behind closed doors and outside the public’s view. Legal experts and government watchers may disagree about how much of this information needed to be released to the public and when it should have been released under the Brown Act. That debate is good and healthy and should take place.
But despite this debate, everyone agrees once the terms of a settlement have been reached, agreed upon and ratified by the board of supervisors, the public has a right to know about the decision. Even Nichols acknowledges the board’s action to ratify a settlement agreement with the grange is a reportable action that should have been disclosed to the public. It was not.
We the people deserve better, and we insist our public servants keep us informed of their deliberations and their decisions.
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