Out Loud: January 18, 2018

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I have to admire one local board member who, following my criticism of his board’s actions in last week’s column, actually came into my office open-minded to learn what he could to better understand the Brown Act concerns I pointed out.

Rarely, in all these years of writing about open government laws — both the Ralph M. Brown Act and the California Public Records Act — does a public official set aside their pride and come into my office to learn what they can do differently.

Dr. Chip Schelly, Idyllwild Water District board president, did that last week. He had read the law but interpreted it differently.

With Jack’s help, we worked through the intent of the law so he could understand it — not always an easy task for most of us lay people.

Just like the medical profession, the legal profession has its own lexicon.

Much of what Jack did as a legal research attorney for the San Bernardino Superior Court not only was to read cases and find the law that applies, but to research past similar cases and what the judge in those instances decided. And so much of law is not just interpretation but intent. What was the intent of the law’s author(s)?

And the Brown Act and the CPRA are no exceptions.

We can hand out copies of the Brown Act all day here at the office but unless you know the background and precedent cases, you’re swimming upstream, in many instances.

Belonging to organizations such as the California News Publishers Association and the First Amendment Coalition gives journalists direct access to attorneys specializing in government transparency. We belong to both organizations, giving us that advantage to talk to these lawyers the way Schelly was able to do with Jack last week.

I’ve found, over the years, that most of the local agencies’ attorneys just don’t have enough training in government transparency laws. Take Joe Aklufi, for instance, who now faces serious criminal charges for non-transparency activity in Beaumont. (Aklufi, page A7, is a former attorney for two of our local agencies.)

We do have exceptions and the one I’m thinking of is Brad Neufeld, Pine Cove Water and Idyllwild Fire Protection districts’ attorney. Neufeld gave instruction on the Brown Act to local public officials within the last couple of years. He’s good; knows the transparency laws more so than most people, including me. But he costs by the hour whereas our membership fees cover access to legal hotlines.

So, what does the general Joe or Jane in Idyllwild do when he/she suspects a transparency law violation, has the Brown Act or CPRA in hand, but can’t make heads nor tails out of the heretofores, notwithstandings, mandamuses, injunctions and declaratory reliefs?

Visit the First Amendment Coalition for free advice at https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/legal-hotline/. The organization, based in California, also advises on national transparency issues. And if you feel you received some great advice, consider sending a donation. It’s a great organization.

Becky Clark, Editor

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