Health board accused of violating California open meeting law in holding closed ‘informational’ sessions

The Del Puerto Health Care board claims that conscientious elected officials are discouraged from serving after they were accused of holding two closed meetings without public notice. -db

Patterson Irrigator
March 4, 2010
By Kendall Wright

In spite of attending training sessions since 2006 about ethics and open-meeting laws, a majority of Del Puerto Health Care board members who were caught on surveillance footage conducting two unannounced meetings in the summer of 2008 still argue that they did nothing wrong.

The two meetings — June 20 and June 24 at Keystone Pacific Business Park, where the district now hopes to move its clinic — were recorded by Johnny Smith, a private investigator hired to follow district CEO Margo Arnold by an attorney who had tried for months to depose her for a separate civil lawsuit. Arnold has argued that because the meetings were purely informational, no violation of the state’s open-meeting law occurred.

“As far as I’m concerned, what we did wasn’t wrong,” Arnold said. “It seems like nobody cares about the good that this board is doing for the community and that we’ve never had any intent to hurt the community.

“I’m afraid I’ll be losing good board members, because every time we try to do something good, we’re nitpicked for it, and I’m sick of it.”

Since 2005, every two years local officials in the state have been required to go through training sessions concerning ethics and the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs open meetings in the state, so they are in compliance with the ethics training requirements of Assembly Bill 1234.

The first such session the Del Puerto board attended was in 2006 through the Office of the County Counsel, which covered the basics of the law, such as when to hold a closed session, what constitutes a meeting, and when a publicly posted agenda is required, Arnold said.

Since then, the board has completed state-approved online training courses through the Institute for Local Government, and its next training scheduled for December.

Betty Carlson, a past board member, agreed with Arnold’s earlier defense that the June 2008 meetings did not violate the Brown Act.

“We made no decision,” Carlson said. “We were just there to see the size (of the building).”

Other health care board members who attended one or both of the meetings — including Jeannette Kessler, Evan Schut and Harold Hill — could not be reached for comment before press time.

County Counsel John P. Doering, who heads up many of the county training sessions, agreed that the health board might have a point.

“What constitutes a meeting is one of the basics we teach in the class; however, while the Brown Act always seems clear on its face, it may not always be so,” he said. “That’s why we always try to convey to boards that the easiest way to avoid the trouble is to avoid the trouble to start with and stay as open as possible.”

Doering offered no comment as to whether he was surprised to learn of the health board’s meetings after members attended a training session.

“I would have to know all the details of the situation, but I’ve been around government enough to say I’m not surprised by anything,” he said. “I’m not interested in arm wrestling with them (Del Puerto Health Care District) over things.”

Health board members Ed Maring, Schut and Hill will be up for re-election in December.

Copyright 2010 Patterson Irrigator.