Holding public office is a public trust. Public officials, whether elected or appointed, are given considerable authority over the lives of their constituents. One would hope and expect that the authority is not abused when the mindset of some of those officials is: “Trust me; I know what is best.”
That trust is earned when those officials conduct their deliberations and make their decisions in public, in open meetings. To assure this, California has the Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires that the meetings of public agencies must be open to the public, with limited exceptions (the discussion of personnel issues and litigation). That act, named for the California legislator who introduced it, has been on the books for more than 60 years, since 1953 when it was signed into law by Gov. Earl Warren.
Despite that longevity, many people are unaware of the law or seem nonchalant about it. The chances are that if you asked 10 people randomly on the street if they knew what the Ralph M. Brown Act was, all 10 would say, “No.” Ask 10 public officials the same question and only three would be familiar with the Brown Act! Okay, maybe that’s being sarcastic. Alright, then, four of them might know what the Brown Act is.
My point is that those who hold public office are charged with a public trust. Violating that trust brings about a general distrust of government, a distrust of public officials. That distrust mounts when suspicion is cast upon the actions of public officials. And that suspicion is heightened by secrecy, something all too prevalent at all levels of government.
During my career as editor of the former Daily Times-Advocate, I wrote more than 50 editorials about abuse of the Brown Act, reminding public officials, which included local city councils, school boards and water agencies, of their obligations under the Brown Act. Did those editorials have any influence? Probably little if any.
The most notorious public agency for excessive executive sessions (secret meetings) was the Escondido City Council majority of Wil Mason, George Linthicumand Bill Crow that held office from 1968 into 1973.
In 1968 when that trio first was elected to office to join Alan Skuba and Lew Tustin, they began voting as a bloc, dominating city politics and, in a sense, were “taking no prisoners.” During that first year in office, that council held 16 executive sessions in 10 months, totaling 32 hours and 5 minutes. That was an average of 1.6 meetings a month and a fraction of more than three hours in secret.
In 1972, when the trio was re-elected (this time, the two members in the minority were Lorraine Boyce and Kenneth M. Roberts), they put their 1968 record to shame. That first year (from April 1972 to April 1973) of their second terms, there must have been one heck of a lot of personnel and litigation problems (the only reasons they legally could meet in private) because they held 36 executive sessions in 12 months; for a total of 37 hours and 10 minutes, an average of three secret meetings a month and more than three hours a month.
It is interesting to note that the council opened its term that year with an executive session in its first official meeting on April 19, 1972, to discuss personnel. And opened the second year of that term on April 18, 1973, with an executive session to discuss personnel!
Many of those 50 Brown Act editorials were written during the years of the city council mentioned above. Why did we as a newspaper continually harp about the Brown Act and remind agencies of their obligations? When a public body abused the Brown Act, as that Escondido City Council was suspected of doing, and meets in private as frequently as it did, then it becomes second nature to meet on the spur of the moment and violate the law, perhaps without realizing it.
Ron Kenney was a reporter and editor of the former Daily Times-Advocate from 1952 to 1978, and was a copy editor on the pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1985 to 1997.