Night, Night!

Photo by Jack GouldThere was a lot of talk about democracy at the June 19 county Board of Supervisors meeting. They talked about giving people not just their voice, but also total control over who represents them.

It was all nice but totally irrelevant: just a few minutes before, all five supes had, without discussion, voted to make it pretty much impossible for working people to attend board meetings.

Since the supervisors control all county funding in a $4.6 billion budget of welfare, health care, the sheriff's department and the district attorney's office and grant lucrative development permits throughout the unincorporated regions, it's important that working people have a chance to speak publicly at board hearings. But as a result of the vote, June 26 was the last county Board of Supervisors meeting held after normal work hours. From now on, all supervisor meetings will take place at 9:30 a.m., when most people are at work.

Night board meetings were one of those few “reforms” enacted during the heady days following the 1994 county bankruptcy. Like the others, it was never really carried out: of the 164 supervisor meetings during the past three years—including all closed sessions, El Toro meetings and special hearings—just 15 were actually convened at night. And those 15 meetings typically carried a lighter agenda than the morning meetings.

To justify going to an all-morning schedule, the clerk of the board's office gave a variety of excuses. First and most important: technology. “Today we have dramatically increased our visibility and availability to the general public,” stated the brief report to the supervisors. “Technology has brought county business to the general public in the convenience of the home environment.”

In other words, because the board agendas and minutes are posted on the county website, because people can listen to board meetings—at 9:30 in the morning—on the Internet, because late-night TV viewers can watch board meetings on cable, there's no need to follow the county's cities and hold meetings at a reasonable hour when the public might actually do more than merely spectate.

Never mind that only a small number of county residents have Internet access. Never mind that many people don't have cable TV. Never mind that people watching at home can't speak out during the meeting about any item on that week's agenda.

There were more excuses. “Additionally,” said the report, “we are in the middle of an energy crisis, and each department has been asked to consider means to minimize the utilization of unnecessary power consumption.”

But the Board of Supervisors' hearing room has no windows, which means the lights have to be on inside no matter when the meeting occurs. Since most power usage occurs during the day, wouldn't it be easier on the power grid if the county did as much as possible at night?

But you've got to love this reason: “We have seen no increased attendance at evening meetings over the past couple of years.” This one I'll give them: if you don't publicize irregular 6 p.m. meetings of the Board of Supervisors, not that many people will show up.

But a lot of people, including department personnel and outside contractors waiting for their projects to get approved, reporters and retirees—people all essentially paid to sit there—showed up to the June 19 meeting for the vote. When no one spoke on the issue, the Los Angeles Times postulated, “For the most part, the public seemed to support the move.”

In fact, it's possible that no one spoke out because those who might have were at work.

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