|News Media Update||CALIFORNIA||Freedom of Information|
Conversations between two public officials not always public meetings
- Members of a public board who conversed one-on-one about unrelated issues did not violate California’s open meetings law, a state appellate court has ruled.
Dec. 14, 2004 — Four members of the San Diego Board of Supervisors and members of the county’s redistricting committee who met one-on-one with each other about various and unrelated issues did not violate the state’s open meetings law, the state appeals court in San Diego ruled Nov. 29.
Had the members discussed the same topic, they might have violated the Brown Act, one of the state’s open meetings laws. However the act specifies that public meetings do not include “individual contacts or conversations between a member of the legislative body and any other person.”
The court ruled that because all of the meetings were about vastly different subject matters, there was no series of one-to-one meetings designed to avoid a public meeting as the plaintiff claimed. The individual receipt of documents for solitary review also was not seen as “collective deliberations” the court said.
The case stemmed from redistricting the county’s lines after the 2000 census. All meetings pertaining to that process are required to be open to the public, and between February 2001 and June 2001 the redistricting committee held a series of public meetings, created a Web site, offered e-mail updates and sent out 1,200 mailings.
Before one of the public hearings, three private conversations were held between board members. C. Anthony Valladolid, director of student legal services at the University of California, sued claiming these were serial meetings, that committee members deliberated in secret, that they exchanged documents for review without the public’s knowledge and that the committee intentionally destroyed the documents while litigation was pending.
According to the decision, the first meeting, between Supervisors Ron Roberts and Greg Cox, consisted of Cox informing Roberts of changing the boundary of his district in a part of downtown. Roberts added the proposed change to a board letter he was drafting about changes in his own district.
The second meeting was between Cox and Bill Horn and originated as a discussion about labor negotiations. During the conversation Horn said his district had grown more than the other districts since the last census, and that moving Escondido from his district to another district would help keep the population more balanced. Cox said he would consider Horn’s proposal at the meeting.
In the third conversation, Roberts told Dianne Jacobs that at the next meeting he would bring up a tract of land on the boundary of their districts that the committee had previously overlooked.
The destroyed documents were shown to be extra copies of documents which were already made available to the public, and also available on the county’s Web site.
(Valladolid v. County of San Diego Board of Supervisors) — EF
© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press