Thursday, June 23, 2011

Santa Barbara City Council to reconsider controversial Brown Act vote; watchdog groups criticize Dale Francisco's comments

By NICK C. TONKIN -- JUNE 21, 2011
After Santa Barbara City Councilman Dale Franciscoblasted portions of a government transparency law, good government and pro-transparency advocates are blasting back.
At a city council meeting two weeks ago, Francisco openly and emphatically objected to the part of the Brown Act that bans a quorum of the city council from discussing city matters in private. He said members should be able to meet privately as long as they vote in public.
Now, after his controversial vote sparked criticism, Francisco has asked that the matter be put back on the council’s agenda today for a new vote.
Francisco, who did not return Daily Sound calls for this report, is running for re-election this November.
Passed in 1953, the Act requires elected officials to conduct business in public and allow public participation through comment, posted agendas, and other documents.
Jessica Levinson, director of political reform at California's Center for Governmental Studies, said she’d never heard of a legislative body advocating an "end-run" around the Brown Act. Being able to see how officials arrive at their decisions is almost as critical as knowing what those decisions were, she said.
"Government officials work for their constituents and I think their constituents have a right to know what they’re doing and how they’re making decisions," Levinson said.
Emily Francke, executive director of Californians Aware, a government watchdog organization, said she’d heard about Francisco’s gripe.
Francke said it’s not surprising for politicians to hate parts of the Brown Act. But this is the first time she’s seen an elected official be so openly critical.
"I don’t think public officials are usually so refreshingly honest about that," Francke said. "But I don’t think it’s a politically very smart move to admit basic disdain for laws that keep the public informed."
Attorney Michael Jenkins, who chairs the Brown Act Committee for the League of California Cities, said people used to operating in the private sector often find sections of the Act restricting.
"There’s no question that it makes the process more cumbersome," Jenkins said.
Francisco’s proposal received support from the other three members of the council’s conservative bloc. Michael Self has already declared, though Randy Rowse has yet to make a move.
Santa Barbara County Democratic Party Chair Daraka Larimore-Hall said Francisco's vote could become an election issue.
The vote surprised Larimore-Hall given the conservatives’ small- government ethos. He believes the conservative bloc could find itself on the losing end if it doesn’t change its stance.
"It seems like a colossally stupid thing to do for very little benefit," Larimore-Hall said.
Greg Gandrud, Santa Barbara County GOP Chair, defended Francisco. Gandrud said Francisco isn’t looking to repeal the Brown Act, just trying to make the council work more effectively.
"It’s good to always be looking at ways the government can conduct its business more efficiently and not get bogged down too much into process," Gandrud said.

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