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No Secret Sessions, Please

Back to Chicago Heights


CLOSED DOORS: As a young reporter, I covered a small city that was as corrupt as its big brother just to the north, namely Chicago.

While Chicago was run by a Democratic machine, Chicago Heights was dominated by Republican politicians. No one got elected to the city council or anything else without their say-so.

Each Monday night, shortly before the council session, councilmembers would retire to a closed room where they went over the agenda and decided how to vote on each item.

Barney Brantingham

Then they’d emerge, call the meeting to order, and vote to approve the stuff they’d agreed on earlier in private. There was very little debate, as you might imagine, unless someone in the audience had something to say.

This didn’t count for much, since all decisions had already been okayed in advance. One night I decided to crash the private session and listen in. They all looked at me, shrugged, made small talk for a while, and walked out to open the meeting. Not surprisingly, no major issues came up.

I was reminded of all this by the Santa Barbara City Council majority last week coming out against open meetings. The public’s right to know and all that — passé, I guess.

Councilmember Dale Francisco allowed as how California’s Brown Act open-meetings law is just too darn strict, saying that a quorum of the council should be able to discuss matters in private as long as the final vote is done in public later.

Sounds like Chicago Heights all over again to me. And since conservative councilmembers Francisco, Michael Self, Frank Hotchkiss, and Randy Rowse are in the majority, guess what quorum would be sitting around in private making those decisions?

Later, of course, to be confirmed on a perfunctory vote in public. As things now stand, the accursed Brown Act prevents any public body from doing this.

But just in case someone got the harebrained idea to expand the public’s right to know, participate in decisions, and make things more transparent, Francisco, Self, Hotchkiss, and Rowse voted to add this to the city’s legislative platform reflecting its stand on federal and state legislation: that it would “oppose legislation that would impose further restrictions on the action that a governing body can take in closed sessions.”

I suppose this could be interpreted as a slap in face of the electorate that put them in office and no doubt prefers to hear their deliberations right out there in public. And with an election coming in November, it might have been unwise for candidates Francisco, Self, and Rowse (if he decides to run) to reveal their undemocratic thinking (Hotchkiss is safe until the 2013 election). Mayor Helene Schneider and councilmembers Bendy White and Grant House were outvoted on the Brown Act issue, with Schneider pointing out that the Brown Act is aimed at preventing closed-door decisions. Deliberations “need the full light of day,” she argued.

The Brown Act also bans trying to get around the law by round-robin phone calls or other gimmicks to corral votes. You know there are always litigious folk who’d just love to catch council folks pulling monkey business like that.

The Ralph M. Brown open-meeting act was passed in 1953. I recall when covering Santa Barbara City Hall in the 1960s that after the morning council meeting adjourned for lunch, the entire council, along with top city officials, would adjourn to break bread together at a restaurant or hotel. (At the taxpayers’ expense, of course. I put my lunch on the News-Press tab since I was working.)

It gave me a chance to interview some of the officials about agenda items. These were basically relaxed lunches, however, and I never caught anyone lining up votes. Heck, the city attorney was right there.

Francisco said he found California’s open-meeting law so restrictive that “the U.S. Constitution could not have happened under the Brown Act.” Well, I checked on whether it was whomped up in some back room by six Founding Fathers in ruffled pants in three hours, then slapped surprise! down on a beer-stained table as a fait accompli.

In reality, some 55 representatives from the various states met in Philadelphia for months, debating various scenarios to guide the new nation. They did it behind closed doors, however, and the Brown Act would have nixed that. But I feel sure that the result would have been much the same even with ye olde publik present and commenting.

When they finally came up with a consensus, the document was presented to the states to adopt or turn down. Fortunately, they okayed it. I left a message at City Hall for Francisco, but he didn’t reply.

WRITE ON!: The 39th Santa Barbara Writers Conference (sbwriters.com), back after a two-year hiatus, runs Saturday, June 18, through Thursday, June 23, at the Mar Monte Hotel. Speakers include keynoter Ray Bradbury, Santa Barbara’s T.C. Boyle, and thriller author Clive Cussler. The conference was rescued from bankruptcy by author Monte Schulz, son of the late Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, a longtime conference speaker.

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