A reporter for the San Francisco Bay Guardian was escorted out of a debate on Prop. 16, the June ballot measure that would limit the creation or expansion of government-owned power agencies, the Guardian reports.
Oddly enough, reporter Brady Welch had been invited to the debate by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, an opponent of the measure. The Guardian is also well known as a critic of PG&E, which favors Prop. 16.
The debate was hosted by the Northern California Power Agency, a public agency that represents 15 cities that own their utilities including Palo Alto.
Here’s Welch’s account:
- At Sacramento’s Doubletree Inn, I headed to the lobby of the California Ballroom, where I found a woman sitting at a table adorned with the logo of the NCPA. “I’m a reporter here to cover the debate between Sen. Mark Leno and a representative from PG&E,” I said. “Would this be the right place?”
- She smiled politely. Sorry, she said, you have to be an NCPA member and registered for the conference.
- “I was invited by the senator,” I told her.
- “Then you will have to wait until he gets here,” she said curtly.
- I walked upstairs to the front desk — and just then, Leno walked through the main lobby’s sliding doors. I introduced myself, walked with him to the conference room, and quickly slipped in with some other attendees. Within three minutes, a man sitting next to me was called to the side by a steward who whispered something to him, and then just as quickly, returned to his seat. He turned to me.
- Are you with the media? he whispered.
- “I’m with a newspaper,” I said.
- He then informed me that the conference was actually private, and sorry, I would have to leave. They would explain more outside.
- After I was escorted out, Leno came up to me and explained that there had been a miscommunication. Turns out [PG&E political consultant David] Townsend didn’t want the media around. And worse, the NCPA folks appeared to be taking his side. Leno arranged for me to hear his opening statement, but that was all.
Attorney Terry Francke of Californians Aware, an open government advocacy group, posted the following in the comments section on the Guardian’s Web site:
- The NCPA is a joint powers agency, which means that its board (as well as the governing bodies of its 15 constituent public agencies) is subject to the Brown Act.
Under that law, a majority of the members of such bodies may gather to hear presentations on public issues relevant to their bailiwicks without triggering the open meeting rule only under certain circumstances, namely if they are attending:
- 1. “an *open and noticed* meeting of another body of the local agency, or at an open and noticed meeting of a legislative body of another local agency …”
2. “a purely social or ceremonial occasion …”
3. “an *open and noticed* meeting of a standing committee of (the same) body …”
4. “an *open and publicized* meeting organized to address a topic of local community concern by a person or organization other than the local agency (that they represent) …”
5. “a conference or similar gathering *open to the public* that involves a discussion of issues of general interest to the public or to public agencies of (their type) …”
Situations 1 through 3 clearly don’t apply here. Situation 4 is closer, and might apply to the attendance of any board majority from any of the 15 agencies. But situation 5 is right on the money, and what it means is: for the NCPA or any of its 15 member agencies, if there was a majority of even one board present, the Brown Act was violated if the conference was not “open to the public.”
Moreover there might be damages liability for violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, as the court of appeal found there was when a plainclothes police officer was ordered to leave a conference otherwise open to the public and sponsored by the ACLU. (Long v. Valentino, 216 Cal. App. 3d 1287 (1989)).
Your reporter’s ouster was more than stupid. It was almost certainly unlawful, and could prove costly.