Tulare County: Judge rules for supervisors on alleged open meeting violations

A superior Judge ruled against a newspaper’s suit against Tulare County Board of Supervisors, holding that there was no proof that business was conducted at lunches paid for by taxpayers. -db

Visalia Times-Delta
August 24, 2010
By Valerie Gibbons

A Tulare County Superior Court judge ruled Monday that a lawsuit seeking to stop the county Board of Supervisors from meeting over lunches lacks sufficient facts to go to trial.

Judge Melinda Reed ruled that there is no substantive proof that county business was discussed at such lunches.

“Thus petitioner fails to allege facts showing that any type of policy making discussions affecting the general public or having to do with the county’s governmental interest have taken place,” she wrote.

The Tulare County Counsel’s Office will seek to have the case dismissed, officials said.

Reed’s decision was lauded by county officials who have maintained since March that the lawsuit was frivolous and that the supervisors did not violate the state’s opening-meeting laws.

“The decision by the court affirms the position of the board that no Brown Act violations have ever occurred,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Worthley. “The petitioners did not allege one fact that would support a lawsuit going forward, which means that the lawsuit was completely spurious and without any factual foundation.”

The two sides have been warring since February over whether Tulare County supervisors admitted violating state open-meeting laws when they certified that dozens of lunch meetings held in 2009 represented a business expense.

Southern California open-meetings watchdog Richard McKee filed a lawsuit in March alleging that the Board of Supervisors violated state open-meeting laws — known collectively as the Brown Act — when it met with a voting majority 46 times for meals in 2009. He filed the suit to end such lunch meetings.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Visalia Times-Delta/Tulare Advance-Register joined the suit in April.

In June Reed gave McKee and the media groups 20 days to come up with a witness who has personal knowledge of what the Board of Supervisors discussed in its unagendized lunch gatherings.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that they needed to conduct discovery — in which the supervisors and other county employees could be compelled to answer questions about what they discussed during the lunches. But Reed said she wouldn’t allow them to go on what she called “a fishing expedition.”

On Monday McKee’s attorney, Kelly Aviles, said she disagreed with Reed’s ruling and the verification requirements the judge imposed in order to let the case go to trial

“The board certified that the lunches were official business,” she said.

Bruce Owdom, the attorney for Visalia Newspapers, Inc. and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said Reed’s ruling missed the mark.

“I think a requirement for an open meeting is when the public’s business is discussed by a majority of the board,” he said.

Deputy County Counsel Julia Langley, who represented the Board of Supervisors, said the lawsuit should be dismissed within a few weeks.

“In my opinion, the court’s ruling was a correct and appropriate application of the law,” Langley said. “The petitions were based on speculation and flawed logic.”

Tulare County Counsel Kathleen Bales-Lange agreed, saying the board will evaluate a legal basis to bring a motion for fees and costs.

“We are very pleased that the court recognized that the plaintiffs have not been able to plead a single fact showing a Brown Act violation, even though they have had three chances to do so,” she said.

But Amy Pack, the president and publisher of the Times-Delta and Advance-Register, said the suit has merit.

“By failing to admit wrongdoing the Board of Supervisors is not only costing the county and tax-paying citizens thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees, it is saying the practice of weekly unannounced lunches at taxpayers’ expense is acceptable,” she said. “This case is anything but frivolous — or a California First Amendment expert, the Visalia Times-Delta and 800 California newspapers would not have petitioned so vigorously to see this practice stopped. Tulare County citizens should be outraged and should direct their dissatisfaction to the board.”

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