Sunday, March 23, 2008
A Lesson on Secrecy and Slippery Slopes
U-T EDITORIAL: NORTH EDITION
Encinitas council learns a lesson on secrecy
March 22, 2008
What a slippery slope a City Council tries to climb when it conducts public business in closed session and by observing only the bare minimum of legal requirements.
Encinitas, now under the council majority of Jerome Stocks, Dan Dalager and James Bond, some time ago changed the way the city schedules closed meetings. It now calls them “special” and gives the public 24 hours notice instead of 72.
This creates the potential for abuse. Someone objecting to the propriety of considering something in closed session has little time to seek relief from the courts.
We have opined on this before. What Encinitas now calls “special,” we call “abhorrent.”
Stocks, mayor for this year, says the 24-hour notice allows the city much more flexibility in arranging a closed-session agenda and is reluctant to have closed meetings on a formal schedule. But, why does Encinitas, a city of 63,000, have so many lawsuits and personnel matters to take up behind closed doors? Presumably, only those who meet in secret know for sure.
Recently, Encinitas took another step to make its government even less transparent. City Council actions taken in the afternoon closed sessions, someone or someones decided, would no longer be reported to the public at the evening regular sessions.
What that meant, for example, is that on March 12 the council took two actions behind closed doors after short public notice, walked into an empty council chamber and gave a report that appears on no videotape. The public showing up for the 6 p.m. regular meeting was oblivious as to what happened.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?
It sounds to us like Stocks, Dalager and Bonds went out of their way to create public distrust and foster conditions ripe for abuse.
The right thing is to report the actions taken immediately after the closed session and to repeat the report during the regular session when someone is actually present to hear it. How difficult is that?
To Stocks' credit, after this page began inquiring into the Encinitas situation, he revised the policy: “I will now, effective today [Wednesday], be making sure [in a move to ensure “belts and suspenders” disclosure] that the city attorney also report out any special meeting activity during the 'reports' portion of the regular City Council meeting.”
This is an election year and what the threesome was unwittingly doing was handing the council minority of Teresa Barth and Maggie Houlihan a sure-fire issue. No member of the public is going to call for more secrecy in government. Neither is the media.
What last week's items were about is not the issue. But, since we've aroused your curiosity, one had to do with building heights (Leucadia Cares v. City of Encinitas) and the other with a long-running battle by an adult bookstore to stay in business (City of Encinitas v. F Street). The city apparently prevailed on a definition of building heights in a dispute with Barratt American. The adult-store dispute was sent back to trial court.
So, three council members unwisely put themselves in an untenable position. When the spotlight was turned on Encinitas' policy, Stocks adeptly changed it. Give Stocks credit for correcting the situation. Give Barth and Houlihan credit for forcing the issue.
We'll let Teresa Barth have the last word: “As I said previously, I think Encinitas should strive to do the best, not the least.”
See also: History of Consent Calendar Misuse