FAC Urges Reversal of Ruling Allowing Secret Government Meetings for Speculative ‘Public Safety’ Concerns

The First Amendment Coalition (FAC) today filed an amicus brief in a California Court of Appeal case that could have far-reaching consequences for the transparency of government meetings. In the brief, FAC urges the court to find that Metrolink, Southern California’s largest commuter rail system, violated the state’s open-meetings laws when it barred the public from attending a meeting in 2015.

At the closed-door meeting, Metrolink’s board discussed potential design defects in new rail cars that had been installed at the cost of $263 million after a catastrophic accident in 2008 killed 25 people. The cars were intended to help Metrolink avoid such accidents, but after another accident occurred in 2015, an expert review concluded the new cab cars had design flaws.

Rather than discuss these matters of public concern in an open meeting, Metrolink convened a closed session. It claimed it could do so because of a narrow exception to California’s Ralph M. Brown Act—which requires public bodies to hold meetings in public—that allows agencies to exclude the public to deliberate about imminent security threats.

The Los Angeles Times and the nonprofit group Californians Aware sued Metrolink under the Brown Act, arguing the “public safety” exception may be used only under narrow circumstances where there is a demonstrable threat to essential public services. Metrolink, the lawsuit alleged, fell far short of showing that such a threat existed. Finding that it was required to defer to Metrolink’s conclusions about the potential safety threat, the court concluded that Metrolink did not violate the Brown Act.

The Times and Cal Aware have appealed the decision. In support of that appeal, FAC’s brief argues the trial court’s decision, if maintained, would open the door to widespread abuse by agency officials who could close meetings under the flimsiest of justifications. It “would allow public officials to hide evidence of embarrassing defects and conditions—a crumbling dam spillway, a defective government building, or a tainted water supply—simply by conjuring up speculative security concerns to avoid embarrassment,” the brief states.

“This ruling is both legally incorrect and dangerous as a policy matter, because it essentially says that the public just has to take an agency’s word for it that ‘public safety’ requires a meeting be closed to the public,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “Both the Brown Act and the California Constitution set a much higher bar to justify secrecy in public meetings.”

FAC is joined in the brief by the California News Publishers Association, the Southern California News Group, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists. The organizations are represented in the amicus brief by attorney Karl Olson of Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes and Almazan.

Read the full brief here.

For more information contact:

David Snyder
Executive Director
First Amendment Coalition

Karl Olson
Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes & Almazan