Monday, January 9, 2012

Tulare County: A watchful citizen strikes paydirt, by Jim Houck

Irene Lapin is the kind of civic activist we need more of. A retired publicist and teacher, she's been a member of the Tulare County Grand Jury. She describes herself as a consumer advocate.

She believes it's her responsibility and right to keep close watch on what elected officials and their appointees do and make sure it's transparent. She says she attends every Visalia City Council meeting. She asks questions. She prods politely, and she doesn't give up. She studies documents. If someone says it's the law, she checks it out. I have a file of emails from Irene on various issues that shows her tenacity.

She's currently keeping a VERY close eye on the citizen task force appointed by the Visalia City Council to look into whether City Council members should be elected at-large, as they currently are, or by district.

This is high-stakes stuff. One side says the old system dilutes the vote of minorities. The other side says the current system gives council members a citywide view.

It's also expensive stuff. The city is hiring a consulting firm called National Demographics Corp. to provide guidance and, if it gets that far, to prepare district maps that will stand up to challenge in court.

Visalia had been quiet about the cost, and that raised Irene Lapin's suspicions. After scouring City Council agendas without finding any reference to appropriating money for the task force, she sent Deputy City Manager Leslie Caviglia a nice email on Dec. 19.

"Hi, Leslie — Can you tell me who can provide (a) the operating budget figure for the Election Process Task Force, including the total fee to be paid to the demographic consultant and any other consulting personnel; (b) the Council meeting date at which the budget was approved?

"Thank you kindly,

"Irene Lapin"

There was some back-and-forth, where Caviglia offered to provide the information via phone ("hard to explain via email") and Lapin said she'd like it in written form, "if you'd be so kind."

So, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, Lapin got her answer:

"The City Council approved up to $50,000 for expenses associated with the Task Force during a closed session discussion on Oct. 3. It was closed session because litigation has been threatened. The City Attorney has given permission to release this portion of the discussion.

"... The fee for the demographer is estimated to be between $20,000 and $30,000, depending upon how much data the Council determines is necessary to present a complete picture of the current voting situation. We are reviewing the first substantial data from him this week in preparation for next week's Task Force meeting. It's unclear yet if/how much more we will need him to do."

"Hope this is helpful. ... Happy New Year!"


So the City Council voted in closed session to provide $50,000 for the task force? And it felt that it had the right to do that because "litigation had been threatened"?

What's wrong with that?

Well, it violates the state's open meetings law on several counts.

ª The Brown Act strictly limits the matters that can be discussed in closed session. (Government Code 54956.9) Providing $50,000 for a task force isn't one of them. "Closed sessions must be expressively authorized by explicit statutory provisions." (California Attorney General Opinion: 71 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen 96, 105-105 (1988).)

ª Any business to be transacted or discussed, either in open or closed session, must be described on the meeting's agenda. (GC 54954.2)

ª Closed sessions to discuss threatened litigation can't be used to reach decisions on issues other than litigation. The attorney general calls that a subterfuge. (California Attorney General Opinion: 71 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen 96, 105-105 (1988).)

ª Any action taken at a closed session (except contracts in some circumstances) must be disclosed publicly immediately afterward. (GC 54957.1) That's right now. Same day. Same hour. Not three months later when someone asks about it.

How did this happen?

Was the City Council just sloppy or trying to slip one past the public?

Bob Link was mayor at the time and current mayor Amy Shuklian was vice mayor.

We heard from the city's lawyer, Alex Pletzer, who was there. He agreed that the council voted on the expenditure during a closed session discussion of "potential litigation." And he said the Brown Act wasn't violated.

So much for subterfuge.

Peltzer's casual response raises the question of what else the City Council approves behind closed doors without notifying the public in advance or telling the public about it later.

That ought to trouble every resident of Visalia.

The good news, though, is that it was a citizen who yanked the covers off this charade. Irene Lapin deserves our thanks.

ª Jim Houck is the Visalia Times-Delta's special projects editor. He can be reached at

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