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by Debbie Cook, first posted in Surf City Voice, Aug. 4, 2014.
At a recent (July 3) sub-committee meeting (see video at bottom of story) OC Water District Director Cathy Green dismissed an idea by Director Jan Flory to have staff prepare a report on the cost alternatives for video streaming public meetings.
Flory wants to make it easier for the district’s ratepayers to attend those meetings or at least be able to see them by watching live or archived versions online.
Few public citizens participate in OCWD meetings, a blow to democracy that is exacerbated by a calendar set for the convenience of directors but not them.
Trying to break that mold a bit, on the day of the committee meeting, myself and a few other public citizens actually did attend in order to support Flory’s proposal.
But Green and the two other voting members of the five-member communications and legislation committee, Stephen Sheldon and Shawn Dewane, tried to table discussion of the item—even though there is no tabling motion under OCWD meetings rules—for up to a year.
Green melodramatically argued that she wasn’t going to vote to have OCWD staff get a lot more information about video streaming until she had a lot more information about video streaming.
That’s right. That’s really what she argued. But don’t take my word for it, watch the video accompanying this commentary to see and hear for yourself.
Green also said that, in Huntington Beach, where she served two terms with me as a member of the city council, video streaming never worked.
“I’m not going to say ‘Oh let’s do it’ and then we end up with all the trouble that so many other entities have ended up with—they don’t work,” she opined.
I’m not sure what Green meant, because video streaming of city council meetings has always worked pretty well, in my experience.
In fact, the city now provides the highest quality of online streaming and video archiving that I have seen to date, probably a good model for the OCWD to follow if Green and the others would only keep their minds open.
Video streaming of public meetings, along with better adherence to open meeting laws (Secret Meetings, July 16), would serve the broader purposes of participatory democracy embedded in our national and state constitutions and would help OCWD’s ratepayers to hold their public officials accountable.
But video streaming would also help reveal OCWD’s disturbing and underhanded manner of holding committee meetings, in which policy decisions are usually all but finalized, with little if any public input.
That legislative sleight of hand is done by allowing directors from the full ten-member OCWD board, who are not members of five-member committees, to attend those meetings as second tier or alternate voting members and to discuss agenda items while sitting at the table with first-tier committee members.
In my opinion, these de facto board meetings violate the Brown Act (which governs open meetings by government agencies) because non-committee board members who attend committee meetings are relegated under the Act to (silent) observer status only and cannot sit at the table.
The OCWD board tries to slip by the Act with fine print that calls the committee meetings joint meetings, which it believes creates an exemption. But a 2003 State Attorney General summary of the Brown Act makes it clear that the claimed exemption is misapplied:
…However, if two bodies conduct a joint meeting, each body should notice the meeting as a joint meeting of the two bodies. This exemption, which is contained in section 54952.2 (c)(4), does not apply when a majority of the members of a parent legislative body attend a meeting of a standing committee of the parent body. However, section 54952 (c)(6) specifically addresses this issue. It provides that a majority of the parent body may attend an open and noticed meeting of a standing committee so long as the members who are not members of the standing committee and which cause a majority of of the parent body to be present, attend only as observers.(Emphasis added)
These illicit “joint meetings” are held in the employees only section of the OCWD office building, with no sign to direct the public, in a small room packed with board members and paid consultants. There is little sitting space left over in the unlikely event that a public citizen should wander in.
Even if these meetings were appropriate, the public is very unlikely to understand that they are virtually full board meetings (where final deliberations are made)—another Brown Act violation by the OCWD, as a legal opinion written by the State Attorney General (1997) makes clear:
The purposes of the Act are to ensure not only that any final actions by legislative bodies of local public agencies are taken in a meeting to which the public has advance notice, but also that any deliberations with respect thereto are conducted in public as well. (Emphasis added)
The calendar section of the OCWD website shows only two regular board meetings (on the first and third Wednesdays of the month)—at which, the public would likely assume, final deliberations by the board are made.
But the calendar does not openly identify the also-listed committee meetings as “joint meetings” where deliberations are, in fact, made. Those meetings are identified as mere committee meetings that the public is likely to believe are only advisory in nature, as real committees are meant to be.
The public is, therefore, misled and denied an opportunity to participate in a meaningful fashion in the discussion process, as required by the Act.
And if a public citizen attended one of the two evening board meetings identified on the calendar as such, she might wonder how important items are approved without staff presentations or board discussions.
That’s because, once a “recommendation” has been passed in committee, where only three yes votes are needed to pass a motion, but where all ten members are allowed under OCWD’s claimed “joint meeting” loophole to influence the deliberations, it is placed on the “consent calendar for the next Wednesday-evening board meeting where it will usually be rubber stamped.
A “Visitor Participation” notice at the top of the board agenda says that visitors may pull an item from the consent calendar for discussion, but that discussion is likely to be minimal if it occurs at all.
For example, when Surf City Voice reporter John Earl recently tested that procedure at a Wednesday board meeting, OCWD’s directors argued amongst themselves over whether Earl had the right to “pull” consent items or not, even though the board’s own rules, printed on the agenda before their very eyes at that time, said he did have that right.
Finally, Earl was allowed to pull various items, but board members still weren’t sure how long he should get to state his concerns over those items—three minutes per item as the board’s own rules state or three minutes for multiple items. Earl spoke, but his concerns were ignored by the board without deliberation.
Only a board member stands a chance of provoking a meaningful discussion of an item pulled from the consent calendar, which is exactly what Flory did at the July 16 board meeting when she pulled the recommendation, made by committee, to “table” her own video-streaming study proposal.
When she made a substitute motion to push the study forward it didn’t sit well with directors Green, Kathryn Barr, and Roger Yoh, who all voted to abstain because they thought the issue shouldn’t have been discussed further after it was voted down in committee.
Two other directors were absent. Four other members, including Sheldon, voted for Flory’s motion, but six votes were needed for it to pass, so it failed.
Roger Yoh, perhaps unknowingly, demonstrated the problem with obvious disdain for the public when he explained his reasoning:
“That’s what we have discussion at the committee level for. And we make recommendations. But if it’s not less than three votes [majority], I don’t think we need to regurgitate it at the board level again.”
But, in this case, “regurgitate” actually means repeating a recommendation made by a minority of the board without analyzing or comprehending it.
And that is exactly what happens when the OCWD Board of Directors omits the critical step of including the public in its deliberations.
We, the people, are owed no less than our full right to participate in our own government.