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The Brown Act strengthens your 1st Amendment rights – Freedom of Speech

Opinion Piece By Samuel Strait – April 28, 2017

In 1953 the Ralph M Brown Act became the law in California.  Most people believe that it is mainly to prevent mischief by government representatives conducting the business of the government in secret  out of the view and control of the public.  It seems that there was and continues to be a chronic problem with our elected officials perverting the system of disclosure to the public and on a regular basis violating the provisions of the Brown Act.

We have recently experienced just such a very public occurrence of a violation where two private citizen’s right to public comment was terminated during the course of a Board of Supervisor’s, March 28,2017 meeting.   While later in the meeting this egregious act was corrected by County Counsel, it remains that many public officials do not realize the level of protected public input required to be available at every public meeting for every item on the posted agenda as well as an opportunity for any topic within the purview of the Board to be commented on by the public.   This particular right of the public is found in Gov. Code 54954.3 of the Brown Act.

Having just so very recently weathered a storm of outrage regarding the Public’s right to speak, one would naturally assume that Chairman Chris Howard would be more than circumspect, educate himself on the entire provisions of the Brown Act, and bend over backwards to avoid any hint of further violations; NOT SO.   Less than thirty days from a previously acknowledged violation of the Brown Act, during a past Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Chairman Howard on April 25th once again denied a private citizen his right to speak at the conclusion of the meeting on a topic that was clearly on the posted agenda and according to Gov. Code 54954.3 must allow time for a public comment.  This did not happen.  The meeting was further improperly adjourned.  And the County Counsel was mute on the violation.

This repeated incompetence by the current Chairman of our Board of Supervisors is flirting with a fairly sizable lawsuit at the public expense and the citizens of Del Norte County deserve better.  It appears quite clearly that Chair Chris Howard does not learn from his mistakes.  In a remarkably tone deaf Supervisor’s report moments before the violation, Supervisor Howard wanted the public to believe that he was human, made mistakes in the past, and would make every effort not to repeat violations of the Brown Act in the future.  Hardly were the words out of his mouth when such an act was repeated.  This time, in such haste, that no effort was made to correct this particular error by reconvening the Board meeting and allowing the Public Comment as REQUIRED BY LAW.   To this point there has been NO EFFORT by the Chairman to correct his oversight and with the second such violation in so many days, reports to the First Amendment Coalition’s lawyers are likely to attract some rather high profile and negative legal attention.

Since there was no attention paid to the first violation it is perhaps time for our local District Attorney to wake up to the fact that there is a real and identifiable legal issue with the conduct of Supervisor Chris Howard.  If our local District Attorney cannot generate any interest in this issue and stir himself to take action, perhaps a lawsuit and an interest by the State’s Attorney General may be in the offing.  In any event this kind of behavior out of one of our elected public officials is unacceptable, and should result in his stepping down from the Chairmanship AT THE VERY LEAST!  While this may mitigate some of the problems that currently exist with Chair Howard’s leadership, his resignation from the Board of Supervisors would not be unwelcome.  The current Board has become entirely too dysfunctional and no longer represents the best interest of the citizens of Del Norte County.

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