Brew session after council meeting fogs up open government

A newspaper editor trying to relax after a tough day runs into most of the Willows City Council and some staff at a local watering hole. The editor suggests that one way out of the perception of Brown Act violations would be for the council to post adequate public notice and order up more pitchers. -DB

March 13, 2009
By Michael S. Green

So a week ago Tuesday I’m at The Last Stand in Willows, crying in my beer after a tough day at work. I didn’t even get any tacos, dagnab it.

Then most of the Willows City Council and top staff, including City Manager Steve Holsinger, pulled up to have a beer after a long council meeting. (They didn’t get any tacos, either.)
This created, for me at least, an awkward situation because:

1. First impressions count, and this was my first meeting with Willows’ top brass.

2. Being a journalist, I knew that said gathering potentially violated the Brown Act, the state’s open-meetings law.

3. I still wanted tacos.

What to do, what to do. For the answer, let’s flash back a few months to an unusual gathering of Glenn County officials and staff. There they all sat in Memorial Hall, a captive audience to a training seminar sponsored, loosely speaking, by Tim Crews, editor and publisher of the Sacramento Valley Mirror.

The training was part of a legal settlement reached after Crews sued the county over access to public records, which many local governments struggle with more than the Brown Act. I stood up and gave a brief shout-out to open government, not that anyone asked me to, but what I remember most is how folks looked bored with the whole exercise.

Among other things, the Brown Act requires an agenda to be posted anytime a quorum of an elected body meets to conduct business. The California Public Records Act says most documents prepared or filed by state and local agencies are open to public inspection by nosy reporters and everyone else. Those principles are pretty basic, really, but in practice things often get messy because of ignorance of the law or stubbornness or both.

Now, you can gently lead local government to compliance if it’s willing, or force the issue with lawsuits and training if it’s not. You’d think Glenn County would have gotten the message after paying for its remedial tutoring session.

Yet it was a few scant weeks later when I ran into three supervisors lunching at Nancy’s Airport Cafe together. That violates the spirit of the Brown Act, if not the letter of the law, as I pointed out to the subquorum of supes that chatted me up in the parking lot after lunch.

What to do, what to do. Being the new kid in town, I gave the supervisors a mulligan. First impressions count, after all, and I wanted to learn more about the political landscape before spanking anyone in print.

Also, it can be argued the supes didn’t violate the Brown Act at all, because the law permits a quorum (three people or more on a five-person board) to attend social gatherings without public notice. Holsinger said as much when I called him the day after the council “meeting” at The Last Stand; the gathering was purely social, and all city business was conducted at the real meeting earlier.

So I gave the Willows City Council a mulligan too. Maybe it was poor judgment, maybe it was the second beer on a taco-less stomach. Regardless, it was nice getting face time with city leaders off deadline and outside the sterile confines of City Hall.

Things hit the fan when the council held a post-meeting meeting again Tuesday at Pat and Larry’s. Somebody called a Willows Journal reporter, who reached me – as it happens – at The Last Stand. I opted not to make a big deal about it – or the fact I missed out on tacos again.

Then somebody called the Mirror, apparently, which duly dispatched a reporter and ran a photo of the gathering on its front page Wednesday. The headline read, “In compliance with the spirit of the Brown Act?” The correct answer, of course, is “no.”

What to do, what to do. Let me say this:

• If you’re an elected official, you have my respect – though it doesn’t take all that much to lose it. You toil in sparsely populated meeting rooms while serving an apathetic public, punctuated by the occasional angry mob that fills the chambers for one pet cause or another. Add the state’s recent budget problems to the mix, and you’ve made a thankless task that much harder. I’d want a beer too after dealing with that mess.

• Crews has my respect too. I’ve been reading about his lawsuits for close to a year now, and he’s been dead on every time. Which raises a question: After all the headlines, after all the lawsuits, are local officials really that clueless about open-government laws, or are they just dissing Crews? Nobody wins when personalities trump principles.

Bottom line, the Brown Act is designed to instill faith in government, to avoid the sort of back-door dealing that makes public meetings a charade. To be honest, I’m not all that worried about post-meeting meetings conducted in public with beer mugs and peanuts. There are much more secretive ways to put in the fix, if that’s your intent.

To the contrary, it’s refreshing to see city leaders hanging out with staff for some 12-ounce team building after a long day. If they’d just put out an agenda beforehand, they could do it all the time, for all I care. Maybe we should set a joint session with county supervisors – “Building relations with local media” – and go grab some pitchers. The first round’s on me.

Back in the real world, however, we all know that politicians can look guilty even though they’re doing nothing wrong. Under this moral law of perception, two’s a party and three’s a violation. And I’m fresh out of mulligans from here on out.

Michael S. Green is managing editor of Tri-County Newspapers.
Copyright Sun-Herald 2009