Violation of the Brown Act?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004 2:04 PM

Violation of the Brown Act?
Another Secrecy Slip-Up by the Board of Supervisors?

Sept. 22, 2004 – The Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition today accused the L.A. County Board of Supervisors of possibly violating the Brown Act, the state’s open government meetings law, by voting on a plan of action for the King/Drew trauma center that a majority of members had secretly already agreed upon.

Yesterday the board voted 3-1 to start the process to close the trauma center at the troubled King/Drew Medical Center. The board heard first from Dr. Thomas Garthwaite director of the county’s Department of Health Services (DHS), and others who argued that the trauma unit could not be “fixed” and needed to be closed to save other hospital services. “This hospital overall is over-stressed,” Garthwaite said. “There’s no reserve. There’s no safety margin. It’s like driving your car on the edge of a cliff.”

The vote came after three hours of often emotional testimony from elected officials and members of the public who urged the board to do more fact-checking and wait for the results of a management turn-around team. Many argued that the county’s plan to transport trauma patients to other hospitals was not viable. “If you’re counting on California hospital to take up the slack, I hope to God there’s not a trauma patient on a night when there’s an event at Staples Center, Dodger Stadium, the Music Center or the Coliseum,” said L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn.

The L.A. Sunshine Coalition, an ad hoc group associated with the L.A. Press Club, does not want to argue the merits of the situation. Rather, the coalition questions how the voted was reached and if the board may have violated the Brown Act.

As the Daily Breeze noted, the board’s closed door sessions of Sept. 7 and Sept. 13 were given public notice. However, the agendized notifications were identified as meetings to discuss “a significant exposure to litigation,” with no mention made of the hospital, the trauma unit or the plan Dr. Garthwaite presented to the board.

One hour after the end of the Sept. 13 closed door session, the plan to close the trauma center was announced at a news conference. “The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors today announced a comprehensive rescue plan for King/Drew Medical Center that will preserve this vital facility for generations to come by taking unprecedented actions to strengthen the hospital,” the DHS said in a press release. “The County has taken the important step of phasing out King/Drew’s trauma designation. This action is necessary to decompress the hospital.”

The news conference was the first time the public was made aware that the trauma center could be closed and a massive protest erupted. During the board’s Sept. 21 meeting, a number of those who testified challenged the “facts” that were presented by DHS.

“There are so many things wrong here. First, by not clearly identifying what they intended to discuss behind closed doors, the board violated their own open government policies and laid themselves open to charges of secrecy,” says Karen Ocamb, head of the L.A. Sunshine Coalition and a member of the Press Club’s Sunshine Committee. “They need to codify their own policies so there will be some consequences if they are violated.”

While the board can argue that no specific action was take after the closed doors sessions, in keeping with the Brown Act, the lack of clarity about the closed doors sessions and the public announcement of the board’s unanimous decision to accept the plan offered by Dr. Garthwaite indicates that a consensus about an action to be taken was reached by the board without input from the public.

“The board needs to get their memories checked,” Ocamb says. “They apparently have forgotten all the protests, accusations, and mistrust following the attempts to secretly kill the healthcare ballot measure in February, 2002. I suspect that if the people who protested at yesterday’s board meeting were not so angry about the decision to close the King/Drew trauma center, they’d be screaming about the board making the decision in secret, behind closed-doors.”

The L.A. Sunshine Coalition has long expressed concern that closed door sessions can be used improperly. “Anything can be construed as relating to a legal matter,” says Ocamb. “And we know the previous County Counsel would slap “Confidential” on a public document and declare it to be “attorney-client” privilege. Both journalist and the public need to wake up to the fact that government’s penchant for secrecy is like an addiction, every ready to do its deals in darkness.”

For further information contact Karen Ocamb at karen@lapressclub.org or call her at 323-656-2692

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