The Brown Act famously forbids the Los Angeles City Council and its committees from meeting in secret1 to conduct its public business. The prohibition is found at §54952.2(b)(1), which states categorically that:
But anyone who pays even a little attention to meetings of the Los Angeles City Council or its committees can see that there’s some kind of collusion going on behind the scenes. There are too many unanimous votes, too many obviously scripted comments by Councilmembers responding to scripted comments by other Councilmembers when there’s no legal way for them to have known what their colleagues were planning to say, and just too much foreknowledge of the course of legislation.
It’s really unlikely that the Councilmembers themselves make all the arrangements. Almost surely the collusion is done by their staff. This doesn’t make it any less against the law. It’s exactly the scenario contemplated in the phrase “directly or through intermediaries.” So for instance, if 15 staff members, one from each Council district, got together to discuss pending motions, votes, or anything else within the subject matter jurisdiction of the City Council and then relayed information from the discussion to their bosses it’s a violation.2
One of my very long term projects is finding proof that the City Council does in fact engage in these illegal meetings and also to understand the means by which they do it. It’s slow going, though, and not just because of the City’s general unwillingness to comply with the Public Records Act. What I’m looking for is evidence of habitual and chronic outlawry, so the City has even more pressing reasons to withhold the records.3 But from time to time I come across something interesting and suggestive, and today I actually have two!
The first is a series of emails from March 2020 between all 15 Council District chiefs of staff discussing the emergency homeless shelters set up in parks. It starts out innocuously4 on March 20, 2020 at 3:57 PM with Blair Miller of the Office of the City Administrative Officer emailing the chiefs of staff to ask them for some specific information from their districts. But the innocuous legality goes right out the window three minutes later when Jeanne Min of CD13 reply-alled to her 14 counterparts, telling them what one of her subordinates discovered on a field trip to the Hollywood Recreation Center.
This opened the floodgates. At 4:10 PM CD1’s Debby Kim reply-alled asking whether anyone had the information that Miller was seeking. At 4:42 Joan Pelico of CD5 allowed as how she did not have it. A couple hours later, at 6:31 PM, Nick Greif of CD45 gave the entire recipient list an update on an emergency Rec and Parks homeless shelter in his district: “FYI, at our shelter at 6p, open officially for an hour, no unhoused residents thus far. Anyone else’s shelter actually getting people?”
At 7:19 PM Chad Molnar of CD11 weighed in with a report on the capacity of a shelter in Westchester. Next came Lisa Hansen of CD3 riffing on Molnar’s report, and by “riffing” I mean fitting to take some executive action: “Wow. If capacity isn’t at the 100+ person level, I wonder if the staffing projections need to adjust downward also.” Then Jeanne Min of CD13 had something to add:
We had to decrease the number of beds in Echo Park to 40 beds for the distancing requirement. Around 7PM we had 4 individuals who were registered but weren’t allowed inside b/c the set up inside was not complete. No further update since then :/
And Karo Torossian of CD2 had the last word, or at least the last word insofar as the record reflects it:
NoHo park was set up with 36 beds instead of the 100_ that it was listed for. At 8 pm, it was shut down for the night since it had no unhoused using it. Outreach was very terrible and had no one lined up. It will open at 1 pm tomorrow and will have a nurse so that it can take walk-ins.
So what we have here are all 15 Council chiefs of staff, who are intermediaries for their bosses, outside a meeting authorized by the Brown Act, discussing an item of business within the Council’s subject matter jurisdiction. It is a clear violation of the law, and it’s almost certainly how the Councilmembers develop their unholy and illegal consensuses. They must do this all the time, but this is the first example I’ve been able to obtain. It’s tragic that action must be taken under the Brown Act within nine months of the violation, so there’s nothing to be done about it now.6
And that brings us to the second example, sadly also more than nine months old, which is an April 3, 2020 email from CD5 environmental staffer Andy Shrader to Paul Koretz and possibly some others.7 The email has to do with Koretz’s lifelong opposition to single-use plastic bags, although the issue is tangential to this discussion:
From: Andy Shrader <email@example.com>
Date: 4/3/20, 11:59 AM
I don’t really want to bring this up on the daily staff meeting, because I don’t want to give the Republicans on the call any ideas and I don’t want it to be related to the Chiefs and give another Councilmember a bad idea, but this is banning reusable bags in San Francisco and elsewhere is a serious problem arising from the coronavirus.
So what’s this “daily staff meeting”? Without context I’d assume it was a daily CD5 staff meeting. But does Koretz have republicans in his office? It seems unlikely. It also seems unlikely that an internal CD5 staff meeting would be likely to cause anything “to be related to the Chiefs and give another Councilmember a bad idea”. There’s just no way members of Koretz’s staff can’t keep secret the stuff CD5 discusses internally if they’re told to keep it secret.8
It seems more plausible that Shrader is talking about some kind of meeting that includes staff from other Council Districts, but not chiefs of staff. Is there some other scenario in which it’s likely that things said might “be related to the Chiefs” and thereby “give another Councilmember a bad idea”? What is this daily meeting? I mean, how can we know? This is the first I’ve heard of something like this.9
But if Shrader’s genuinely worried about his statements being conveyed to Chiefs of staff and through them to other Councilmembers he’s basically admitting that Brown Act violations are a very predictable outcome of speaking at the meeting. Which means it really is a meeting, and that means that it’s illegal. The transmission through the staffers to the chiefs and then to the Councilmembers doesn’t even have to happen for this to be a violation. It’s already a meeting if eight or more CMs have staffers attending and discussing issues that the City Council has jurisdiction over.
Amazingly, though, the more I learn about their methods for violating the Brown Act, the more surprised at how dumb they are. Like they didn’t think that regular meetings of all 15 chiefs of staff would be noticed? If they have daily staff meetings with staff from multiple CDs, did they not think word would get out?
I mean, it’s true that they’ve been getting away with violating the Brown Act probably since the day it was passed, but still, these are their methods? I would prefer to have this City not run by crime-doers, but if it is going to be run by crime-doers I’d prefer that they not be so clownishly amateur. But as a wise man once said, you can’t always get what you want. And that goes double for the crime-doers! Anyway, more news when I have it.
- Except for a limited list of specific topics that can be discussed in secret with some caveats. That’s not relevant to this post, though, so I’m just ignoring it.
- Actually it only takes a majority to trigger a violation, which is 8 for the full Council. The situation is further complicated by the fact that each Councilmember is on one or more committees, and they’re also subject to the Brown Act. Some have as few as three members, so if even two Councilmembers OR their staffers discuss committee business outside a public meeting they’re breaking the law.
- The Brown Act actually contains a criminal penalty for intentional violations intended to deprive the public of information. This is at §54959, and states:
Each member of a legislative body who attends a meeting of that legislative body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter, and where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled under this chapter, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
As far as I know no one has ever been prosecuted under this section, at least in part because evidence is so incredibly difficult to come by. But I’m working on it!
- And legally.
- Gone, gone, gone, and good freaking riddance to every last one of them.
- lthough now that I know how it happens I have a way to make possibly more effective CPRA requests.
- For some reason the copy of the email that I obtained doesn’t include the recipients. I’m not sure why this is. Internal evidence shows that Koretz was a recipient.
- I mean, clearly all staff members are capable of leaking information, but they leak to the press for strategic or other reasons. I can’t imagine that Koretz, given how long he’s been in office, hasn’t weeded out untrustworthy staffers. Let alone republicans.
- Surely not the last, though! I am looking into the details, but given how long it takes the City to respond to CPRA requests, I don’t hold out much hope of understanding soon.