Tulare County supervisors voted pay raises for themselves and other county officials last September, but residents had no way to know what the board was up to. The agenda for the Sept. 30 meeting said merely that supervisors were considering “some changes” for employees. The decision wasn’t announced until January. In a Jan. 23 story, The Visalia Times-Delta said that “(b)y voting to raise the elected officials’ pay, the supervisors triggered a pay raise for themselves of 4.56 percent plus other benefits. There was no mention of a raise for the supervisors in any documents available to the public and it was made public only in a newspaper legal notice 3 1/2 months later.” – DR
Board of Supervisors criticized for pay-raise vote
Experts say supervisors may have skirted state law on open meetings
BY JIM HOUCK • firstname.lastname@example.org • January 23, 2009
Two of California’s leading authorities on public access to government attacked the Tulare County Board of Supervisors Thursday for skirting state law at a meeting last September and not informing the public that they were voting on a pay raise.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said the way the supervisors presented their action to the public “was calculated to mislead at least and close to fraudulent.”
Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, called it a “deliberate attempt to mask” what the supervisors were doing.
At issue is the agenda for the supervisors’ Sept. 30 meeting. It stated that the supervisors were voting to “approve changes” for some county employees.
What the supervisors did was vote to increase the pay of a group of highly compensated employees, including elected officials.
By voting to raise the elected officials’ pay, the supervisors triggered a pay raise for themselves of 4.56 percent plus other benefits. There was no mention of a raise for the supervisors in any documents available to the public and it was made public only in a newspaper legal notice 3 1/2 months later.
California’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, says a public agency’s agenda must contain “a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed.”
A 1971 state appeals court decision in a case involving a school board agenda said it was “entirely inadequate notice to a citizenry that may have been concerned” to label a school closure as “continuation school site change.”
An advisory opinion by the state Attorney General’s office said agendas must describe items of business in a way the public “can determine whether to monitor or participate in the meeting.”
Tulare County officials described Thursday a lengthy process for compiling a Board of Supervisors agenda, with materials being drafted by originating departments and reviewed by the county administrative office, the county counsel’s office, the clerk of the Board of Supervisors and sometimes others.
Ultimately, though, Chief Clerk Michelle Baldwin said, she drafts language for the board agenda based on materials provided by originating departments.
Documents from the county Human Resources Department for the Sept. 30 meeting were titled: “Compensation for employees in the following Units: 9, 10, 11, 19, 20 and 21.”
Asked why that was changed on the agenda to “approve changes for employees … ,” eliminating any reference to raises, Baldwin said it was because the action also included matters beyond compensation, such as increases in sick benefits and revisions to personnel rules.
Yet a survey by the Times-Delta of other agenda items related to raises showed more specifics. For example, there was this listing on the Jan. 9, 2007, agenda:
“Approve salary and benefit adjustments for unrepresented employees including department heads both elected and appointed, in accordance with past practice and negotiated agreements, effective Dec. 24, 2006 as follows: approve an across the board salary increase of 5 percent for all unrepresented classifications; and increase the Benefit Amount by 1 percent of salary, but not less than $300 per year nor less than the minimum amount to cover the premium for the employee-only $1,000 deductible plan.”
County Counsel Kathleen Bales-Lange said Thursday night that she, Baldwin and Jean Rousseau, the county chief administrative officer, meet every Monday with the chairman of the Board of Supervisors and sometimes the vice chairman to discuss the next day’s meeting and the agenda for the next week’s meeting.
Asked whether agenda changes are made at that meeting, she said, “Sometimes.”
Asked whether supervisors want changes, she said: “The board chairman has final control over what [the agenda] says and where things go.”
Connie Conway, now a state Assemblywoman, was the supervisors’ chairwoman at the time of the Sept. 30 meeting. She won her election to the state Assembly in November. Conway could not be reached for comment Thursday night.