‘Transparency’ can be foggy

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The purpose of the Ralph M. Brown Act, which is California Government Code sections 54950 through 54963, is to mandate transparency in local government. The Brown Act is not perfect. It requires a good deal of transparency when it comes to the legislative bodies of our local public entities — i.e., councils, boards, commissions, committees, etc. — but very little with regard to their administrative staff.

Contrary to what some people have expressed, it is not a violation of the Brown Act for the administrators of two local public entities to communicate freely with each other, even if done entirely secretly.

So, the fact that IFPD’s chief and battalion chief communicated extensively with San Jacinto’s city manager and city attorney does not violate the Brown Act. These administrators were free to plan a proposed Joint Powers Authority in great detail before they presented their proposition to their respective boards. The administrators could even include two members of their respective boards in their ongoing discussions without violating the Brown Act — as long as no one, either directly or through intermediaries, passed any part of their discussions on to any of the other members of the board and city council. (Gov. Code, § 54952.2, subds. (a) & (b).)

This, in the main, is what IFPD and the city did in setting up their proposed JPA. This was not a violation of the Brown Act ... but was it “transparency”? A visit to the main page of IFPD’s website shows that “Transparency” has its own first-page hot link, indicating that IFPD deems its transparency to be important. But IFPD administrators developed their proposed JPA with no input from the IFPD board — sitting as a board — or from the public IFPD serves.

On May 9, 2016, IFPD administrators issued a press release announcing the proposed JPA with a start date of July 1, 2016 — seven-and-a-half weeks later. They also posted online employment information for three classes of JPA personnel, stating that the application period opened on May 5 and would close on May 20.

All of this happened supposedly before the majority of the IFPD board or the majority of the San Jacinto City Council knew anything about the JPA — yet Chief Patrick Reitz commented on May 10, “This is a big deal, very big.”

From emails produced by IFPD in response to the Town Crier’s California Public Records Act request, we learned that Reitz and Battalion Chief Mark LaMont kept IFPD commission members Jerry Buchanan and Nancy Layton informed as to the evolution of their JPA discussions with the city — no Brown Act violation there since just Buchanan and Layton do not constitute a majority of any board or committee.

But on May 9, Layton exchanged emails with IFPD standing finance committee member Susan Weisbart in which Layton passed on to her a good deal about the JPA discussions. This would not have constituted a Brown Act violation either, since Layton and Weisbart were only two members of that five-member committee — except that Layton also copied that email to fellow committee members Calvin Gogerty and Mark Lonsbury. That constituted a Brown Act violation, relative to the finance committee. We know that Layton did not cc: Gogerty and Lonsbury inadvertently because at one point in her email she wrote: “Please, DO NOT discuss this among yourselves. Direct any questions or concerns you have to me or to Patrick. We cannot risk violating the Brown Act on this one!” Ironically, her own email did just that.

From Layton’s email we also learn that “[m]ost of the detail in this email is not yet for public consumption, but [for] your eyes only until we can hold a joint meeting with the San Jacinto City Council members and City Manager,” which Layton estimated would likely take place on May 20. So, the original intent was that neither the IFPD Board of Commissioners nor the San Jacinto City Council would meet on its own to discuss the JPA at any public meeting prior to their joint meeting down in San Jacinto.

That was changed for some reason. Both boards eventually held separate public meetings regarding forming the JPA, and then held their joint public meeting in San Jacinto. At that joint meeting, problems emerged regarding arranging for a dispatch service, which resulted in postponing the JPA, apparently for a year. So, it’s all out in the open now, anyway.

Layton’s Brown Act-violating email was not a material factor in the larger JPA formation matter. The real point is that the Brown Act can be gotten around by administrators meeting among themselves and keeping a mere minority of their governing boards advised of developments, all outside of public view. Layton wrote: “Because of the potential for CalFire (sic) to take various forms of retaliation, we really were hoping the cat could stay in the bag until the nuts and bolts were agreed upon and ready for signatures at a joint meeting.”

Did they really fear Cal Fire was going to “retaliate” against IFPD in some way? Well, Cal Fire knows about it now ... is it “retaliating”? Or does “retaliating” really just mean that Cal Fire might disagree and oppose?  What? We can’t have that?

Really, why do it this way? What of the concept of “transparency” that IFPD’s website counts among its virtues?

Could not the administrators on both sides have kept the entirety of their respective boards advised by continually reporting on the progress of their JPA discussions as agenda items at their respective public meetings? Why did Layton, in her email, deem it necessary that finance committee members “remain mum and we’ll all have to dodge JP’s questions [a reference to J.P. Crumrine, news editor of the Town Crier], as we’re already having to do”?

Why would they not want the public to know about this JPA until it was a done deal? According to the JPA’s organizational chart (since removed from the IFPD web-site) Reitz will be spending 40 percent of his time (and LaMont 60 percent of his) administering the JPA, and only their respective remaining times administering IFPD. Did they fear the Idyllwild public might object to losing their services at IFPD a combined 50 percent of the time?

Perhaps IFPD believed that a JPA would be faster and easier to form if the public didn’t have an opportunity to question it. Probably true. But doesn’t that say that IFPD values expediency above transparency?

A democratic republic — and the transparency that goes with it — isn’t easy. A quiet oligarchy is a whole lot easier. But is that what we expect from our local government? Is that what we want?

Write us a short letter to tell us what you think. We publish letters.

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