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Watchdog Group Wins Open-Meeting Fight with Grossmont Healthcare Board

La Mesa Patch (2010-11-19) Kenneth Stone

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More Info: COPs Program, Grossmont Healthcare Board

Californians Aware used the threat of lawsuit to gain a reversal from the board, which now will meet Tuesday on Jim Stieringer's request to get his former seat back.

Facing a likely lawsuit, the Grossmont Healthcare District board will meet next week "to cure and correct" what the watchdog group Californians Aware called a Brown Act violation—the board's closed-door meeting Monday morning.

District counsel Jeff Scott wrote Richard P. Mc Kee of Cal Aware, as the open-government group is known, that "the board will consider rescinding the unanimous actions taken in closed session on [Nov. 15] and will publicly report the entire discussion had within the very short closed session which was held."

Scott said he had asked board President Gloria Chadwick to "schedule an open and public special meeting ... to cure and correct the action that is being challenged by Californians Aware."

The board's decision to back down Thursday afternoon came a little more than 25 hours after Cal Aware notified the hospital district it was "likely" to sue the board.

The group objected to a closed meeting by the board to consider the case of retired board member Jim Stieringer, 69, who five days after quitting wanted his seat back after failing to win a full-time job with the district.

Scott wrote that "it will certainly serve the best interest of the public and the district to avoid litigation in this matter."

In his e-mail to Mc Kee—CalAware's vice president for open government compliance—Scott set out an agenda for a special meeting that will take place at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, 72 hours after a public announcement is made.

Under "New Business," the agenda will be:

  1. Consideration of rescission of the Board actions taken in closed session at the Special Board Meeting held on [Nov. 15], including the Report After Closed Session.
  2. Consideration and possible action related to the Memorandum dated November 5, 2010, from Jim Stieringer retiring from the Board and the November 10, 2010, email rescinding the retirement.
  3. Consideration and possible action concerning the form of the Notice of Vacancy.

In laying out the agenda, however, Scott declined to acknowledge a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, as requested by Cal Aware.

So, in a response e-mail, Mc Kee wrote Scott:

"I too would appreciate avoiding litigation, and the agenda you have proposed looks fine. However, I should remind you that precedent makes clear that litigation cannot be avoided, even when actions are reconsidered, as long as an agency's legal counsel maintains that the Brown Act was not violated, as you have here."

Mc Kee cited a series of federal cases and others, where "courts have agreed that it may be assumed that a local agency is likely to continue similar practices when it refuses to admit a violation."

Therefore, he wrote, "without an unambiguous statement that the district was wrong in using the Nov. 15th closed session for the discussions and actions reported therefrom, the public is not reassured that the same improper approach will not be used again in the future, which is what a petition for declaratory relief is meant to correct.

"We will not withdraw our complaint until we have received that public statement of reassurance."

Before the hospital district reversed course, it maintained that "potential litigation"—presumably by Stieringer—required the board to meet behind closed doors.

But in an interview Thursday with La Mesa Patch, Stieringer insisted he had no intention of suing the district he had served since 1992.

"I certainly don't plan to pursue anything against the district or the board [in the way of a lawsuit]," he said before the board opted to rehear his bid to get his seat back. "I'm moving on with my life."

He agreed with Cal Aware on the key point of contention. "This [request to have his seat back] probably should have been discussed in an open meeting."

Stieringer, in a phone interview, had praised longtime district lawyer Scott, saying, "He's an honest man, but not always right."

"Terry Francke [of Cal Aware] is probably California's greatest authority [on the Brown Act, which regulates public meetings]," Stieringer said. "If Terry Francke says Jeff is wrong, my money is on Terry Francke."

For his part, Mc Kee has a history of settling lawsuits over Brown Act issues.

A year ago, Cal Aware got the Ventura County town of Fillmore to issue a written statement admitting that Brown Act violations occurred at an Aug. 25, 2009, City Council meeting.

The settlement required the council to take Brown Act "retraining" and have the city pay $6,000 of Mc Kee's attorney's fees.

The Grossmont Healthcare District acts as landlord to Sharp Grossmont Hospital and seeks to satisfy the unmet health-care needs of a large East County area stretching from Santee and Lakeside on the north to Spring Valley and Lemon Grove south and Campo and Buckman Springs to the east.

The latest development also was a victory for Ray Lutz, the La Mesa-born former congressional candidate. He argued before Monday's closed session that it should be held in public. His Citizens' Oversight Project Committee has pushed for open meetings throughout the country.

Lutz said he would be at Friday's scheduled board meeting at the Wakarusa Street conference center in La Mesa.

"I'm planning on recording it," he said.

Updated 3:45 p.m. Nov. 19
Topic revision: r1 - 20 Nov 2010, RaymondLutz
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