Friday Mar 05 2010
Our View: Placer not exempt from keeping to the Brown Act
During these tough economic times, government at every level faces media scrutiny. The public has a right to know how elected officials are spending taxpayer dollars. That’s why it’s especially troubling that the Placer County District Attorney’s Office does little to actively enforce the Ralph Brown Act. A couple of highly publicized examples help illustrate the point: When examining Placer County receipts, the Auburn Journal found one from 2008 that touched a nerve with taxpayers – a $1,600 dinner in Washington, D.C. to “thank” then-Congressman John Doolittle. Supervisors Jim Holmes, Rocky Rockholm and Robert Weygandt dined handsomely on the taxpayers’ dime, along with CEO Tom Miller and then-assistant CEO Richard Colwell, among others. When questioned about the lavish dinner, Weygandt bristled. Weygandt said the dinner was an effective way to lobby our Washington representative, and that it paid off many times over in bringing home federal dollars. The problem with that reasoning, however, was the dinner was never agendized nor the public ever notified that three or more supervisors were meeting together discussing Placer County business. A minor violation of the Brown Act perhaps? Business as usual? Or is this an environment in which spending has gotten out of control? One look at the massive Placer County budget deficit helps provide the answers. Another more recent scenario shows not much has changed since 2008: Supervisors rubber-stamped the hiring of board chairman Kirk Uhler’s wife to an unadvertised near six-figure salary, and then subsequently OK’d a 5 percent raise after just six months. Taxpayers were rightfully outraged. The response from the supervisors? They say they had no choice because of a step-salary increase ordinance to which they were forced to adhere. To justify the seemingly wasteful, nepotistic spending, Rockholm said he had made his distaste for the ordinances known in a previous closed-session meeting. The problem with that argument is familiar: Closed-session discussion items must be agendized, according to the Brown Act, but they were not. League of Placer County Taxpayers leaders wrote letters to the editor complaining about the Brown Act violations after both instances were made public in the Journal. But there was no response on the alleged Brown Act violations from supervisors, county executives nor the District Attorney’s Office. With myriad Placer County elected officials, how is the District Attorney’s Office monitoring compliance with the Brown Act and when are violators warned or prosecuted? A good start would be by enforcing the Brown Act and utilizing the grand jury to the full extent of its legal capabilities. Perhaps Scott Owens, the heir-apparent to the District Attorney’s throne, can explain to taxpayers here, in space provided by the Journal. Many local elected boards take the Brown Act, the state open meetings law, very seriously. County supervisors might think they do, as well, but what many see is a good-old-boys network with a spending addiction. The county is facing budget deficits estimated at $20 million to $38 million over the next couple of years. County rank-and-file employees are facing possible layoffs. Services are being reduced. There are mandatory furlough days, and no sign of real changes in attitudes. With one exception: Newcomer Jennifer Montgomery has found the courage to speak and vote against the rubber-stamping, good-old-boy theology. With campaign war chests beefed up by local developers, Indian tribes and a political machine, it’s tough to change Placer County’s management-oriented spending. Now that CEO Miller is poised to look at all departments for personnel and spending cuts, maybe the District Attorney’s Office will pay attention to the Brown Act and the nepotistic environment in the county. It would be about time.