How They Violate The Brown Act

Brown Act violations: After observing the Lake County Board of Supervisors for only a few months (early 2001), it became blatantly obvious that the creation of the agenda and the manner of presenting “proposals” by various department heads were the result of behind the scenes crafting — since the Administration has the ability to go to all of the elected officials without violating the law, and the public’s ability to get straight answers about their concerns is minimal, at best.

A popular dodge is the use of “boards, committees, and commissions” created by the authority of the Board. On the rare occasions when any of them actually report to their makers in a public forum, once in a while asking for permission to spend their meager budgets (not many committees or boards have them) in a manner designed to please the Board’s intentions, once again the public is given short shrift.

Seldom (if ever), appointed officials — many of them department heads — provide reports on the results of spending programs, usually when a formal “notice of completion” requires Board approval before submittal to a funding agency, such as some federal programs insist on.

Nowhere to be found are reports on results of funded projects or programs passed “through” to contractors, such as the non-profit organizations who are hired to deliver social services (especially for the extended, or never-ending, relief from disasters).

Official announcements of “Notice of Intent” and “Notice of Completion” are hand-posted on a clip-board fixed to the exterior hallway leading to the Assessor-Recorder’s office; “legal notices” are published in the state-approved “newspaper of record” — requiring the purchase of the paper in order to be “informed.” There is no Public Information Office to answer questions, and the dispersion of information sources requires an inquirer to find — or ferret out — the correct way to make requests of various departments. Contractors generally answer none, referring back to the hiring agency.

The Planning Commission here is presented with highly negotiated “Mitigated Negative Declarations” of “conditioned permits” endorsed by Community Development Department staff reports, which elide with aplomb any inconvenient details found in the “initial studies” which themselves are created under the county’s internally-divined “Environmental Protection Guidelines” (created in the 70s?) that manage to skip the extremely important question of impacts on water resources. Only on one or two occasions has a permit been “conditioned” by the requirement to provide a “Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Plan” (CEQA), and even then the act of compliance is left up to the permittee, with a one-time minor fee to have an inspector visit the site and certify that the required mitigation has been completed satisfactorily.

Major ordinances become “municipal codes.” Some of the most critical of these ignore the impact of unregulated water extraction, allowing the process called “ripening for development” to occur in front of our very eyes. One major vineyard operation installed huge water lines along “avenues” that can be seen — from 10,000 feet — as future “blocks” of side-by-side suburban homes; the potential claim for the “proof” of available water is established in the measurement of unregulated wells tapping into fragile aquifers uphill from established subdivisions (or, in the less visible countryside, above agricultural producers of “food and fiber” — the most sacred of sacred cows, but not shielded from groundwater depletion by any real restrictions in the county’s shameful “groundwater management” ordinance).

The antiquated and mostly unenforced “stormwater management,” “shoreline management,” and highly culpable “grading” ordinances leave the destruction of our most significant natural resources up to the developers and their real estate backers. “Watershed” management — authorized by state legislation in 2004 by NorCal’s very own Wes Chesbro — established in theory to meet the federal demands of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (and potentially “restore the beneficial uses” of Clear Lake in accordance with State Water Board “orders” — also unenforced, and in fact based on unenforceable monitoring and reporting requirements from federal, state, incorporated and unincorporated agencies), has never been codified in an “enabling ordinance,” so it is not even included in the municipal codes.

Making the process even more opaque is the general practice of placing contract approvals in the section of the Board agenda known as the “Consent” agenda. The agendas themselves do not appear for public consumption in a truly useful timeframe (72 WORKING hours prior to the hearing), so the persistent citizen must attend to proposed agendas that arrive after the close of business on Thursday — and find the offices closed to the public on Friday! (The Community Development Department is especially rude in informing a caller on the last day of the week, to call back on Monday.)

With diligence, patience, and the grudging willingness of some staff, one might be able to get a question posed, if not actually answered, on a Friday — by having a direct phone number to a “responsible party” — but the general public is SOL.

And a body of “Board of Supervisors Policies & Procedures” is completely unavailable to the public, kept in the offices of the Administration, and discerned in existence only when the Chief Administrative Officer or her deputies refer to the “established policy” guiding a past position on a proposed modification to management action — such as qualifications and classification of employees, which has been occurring here behind the scenes for agonizing months, after the critical department heads (and the Sheriff) reported ad nauseam the impacts of always having 20% fewer staff than are needed, and sometimes approved in “position allocations” in department budgets.

Even those departments whose services are funded mostly by federal and/or state revenues, not subject to the local pay scale limitations, cannot get permission to hire the necessary man/womanpower to meet federal or state mandated functions to protect the public health and safety of our poverty-stricken populations.

Despite the state’s Sunshine Laws, and various other challenges to the obfuscative practices, the Intent of the Ralph M. Brown Act brings no joy here:

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that  the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public  agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s  business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken  openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”  “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the  agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do  not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for  the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The  people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control  over the instruments they have created.”  

[Government Code Sections 54950-54963]

The subject should be taught in high school, and every member appointed to a “board, committee, or commission” by the Board of Supervisors should receive training in how their participation is governed by the law. Instead, the county employs a “risk manager” (a.k.a., “county counsel”) to make sure that “decisions” made during legally-noticed public hearings meet the absolute minimum criteria of preventing the threat of lawsuit. Good luck with that, if you don’t have deep pockets and a cohort of influential supporters.

The worst offenses are committed by the Local Agency Formation Commission, in which three elected county supervisors are in attendance and actively involved in important decision making — often related to those massive natural resource abuses not prevented by county municipal codes — even though, in strict practice, the “third” supervisor is an “alternate” voter in case one of the two voting supervisors is absent during a legal proceeding. And if you think these people don’t talk amongst themselves in unseen settings, please think again. Talk about a “culture club”!

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that  the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public  agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s  business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken  openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”  “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the  agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do  not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for  the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The  people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control  over the instruments they have created.”  

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