Some weeks ago Crescent City Public Works Director Eric Wier was scrambling during odd hours, calling and emailing myself and Publisher Cindy Vosburg. Ceaseless heavy rains were putting several city streets at risk.
Cooper Avenue was in danger of a complete washout after a huge culvert collapsed. A lake was backing up behind a temporary dam and there was the very real danger of massive flooding, endangering property and lives.
Wier said the city had to act fast. It would require a special meeting of the Crescent City Council that day to approve an emergency declaration.
Wier was contacting the Triplicate because it is the newspaper of record in Del Norte County. Under state transparency laws — specifically the Brown Act — the city is required to give the newspaper of record, thus the public, at least 24 hours notice of any special meeting.
The city didn’t have 24 hours, Wier said, but knew its obligation under the law regarding proper notice. He wanted to know if we would object to the special meeting. We said we would not object because there is a provision in the Brown Act for just such instances.
When it comes to emergencies, the 24 hour notice is not necessary, but a 1-hour notification of media is necessary, if possible.
•The city had a real emergency.
•The city was doing its best to obey a law designed to protect the taxpayer’s interest by ensuring the public’s business is conducted in public.
The city did it the right way.
Fast forward to last Tuesday and a meeting of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors.
District 5 Supervisor Bob Berkowitz wanted supervisors to endorse a plan he says could bring millions in federal money needed to build a bypass at Last Chance Grade within five years. The problem: It wasn’t on the agenda.
Under the Brown Act, if an item isn’t on the agenda, it can’t be acted on because the public hasn’t been given prior notice. There are serious questions about whether the issue could even be discussed. But it was.
Prior to the meeting, Berkowitz had asked board Chairman Chris Howard to place the item on the agenda. Howard declined, citing his scheduled trip to be in Japan that day on a Sister City diplomatic mission.
Howard said he wanted such an important issue to be considered by the full board. It was a sentiment echoed during the meeting by Supervisors Lori Cowan and Gerry Hemmingsen as Berkowitz and Supervisor Roger Gitlin maneuvered to try and get the issue placed on the agenda.
Berkowitz and Gitlin tried claiming supervisors were faced with an emergency and needed to invoke the emergency exception to the Brown Act.
Berkowitz argued that President Donald Trump has said he plans to introduce a $1 trillion public works bill. Trump hasn’t yet and there is no such bill under consideration by Congress.
The only emergency was in the minds of Berkowitz and Gitlin. Certainly not anything as factual as what the city faced.
The most troubling part of all this is the willingness of Berkowitz and Gitlin to attempt to skirt a law written to protect taxpayers and the public.
County Counsel Elizabeth Cable noted during the exchange, “I have some real concerns about this, in terms of the Brown Act, which I know some of you know already.” That’s lawyer talk for I don’t think this is a good idea. And for good reason.
The Brown Act is very clear on how elected officials must notify the public before they can meet and take action. It seems Berkowitz and Gitlin need a reminder. Here it is:
• Regular meetings must be noticed through the posting of an agenda at least 72 hours before the meeting. Only the business specified on the agenda may be addressed.
• Special meetings may be called only upon 24 hours notice to each local newspaper of general circulation, radio or television station that has in writing requested notice. The notice must be posted in a location freely accessible to the public. Only the business specified for discussion at the special meeting may be addressed.
• Emergency meetings may be called under specific, drastic circumstances (work stoppage, crippling activity, or other activity that severely impairs public health, safety, or both, as determined by a majority of the members of the legislative body). The 24 hour notice is not necessary, but a 1 hour notification of those media requesting notice is necessary if possible.
As the newspaper of record, a big part of our job is serving as the watchdog for this community. We take that role seriously. When elected or appointed officials try to get around the law —
regardless the intention — we are going to call them on it.
The public’s business must be conducted in public.
Robin Fornoff is editor of the Del Norte Triplicate. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org