June 27 2012 10:03 AM

Unified Disaster Council meeting turns into a brief battle over open government

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The local region's disaster-response plan is a beast of a document, comprising 17 sections, or annexes, lettered A through R, with Annex N weirdly left "unassigned." How the county will communicate with the press in an emergency is detailed in Annex L, which covers public information and "rumor control."

The strategy is guided by two policies: that the public has a right to know and that the news media's job is to disseminate accurate information and the press should therefore be "treated with the respect warranted by that role."

While that may apply to tsunamis, earthquakes, influenza outbreaks and terrorist attacks, the County of San Diego hasn't quite learned how to respect the public and media in day-to-day planning.

The Unified Disaster Council is the regional governing body for emergency response. Made up of representatives from 18 jurisdictions and staffed by county employees, the UDC meets in even-numbered months in an earthquake-proof, secure compound off Ruffin Road.

CityBeat attended the Thursday, June 21, meeting for an upcoming story. As is typical with government meetings, a stack of agendas and minutes were available near the door, but missing were copies of the handouts corresponding to the items on the agenda. Instead, there was a single manila folder containing a single copy of everything.

As UDC began discussing its $3.8-million budget, we began flipping through the folder. Suddenly, Sarah Gordon, the communications officer assigned to public safety, stormed in and took it. We asked for copies of the budget being discussed. She said no.

David Greene, a lawyer with the First Amendment Coalition, says this was a textbook violation of California's open-government laws.

"It's both a Brown Act and a Public Records Act violation," Green says. "Any document distributed to all or a majority of members of a board before or during a meeting must be made public ‘without delay'…. Normally we don't allow agencies to pass budgets in secrecy."

The Ralph M. Brown Act was passed in 1953 to protect the public's right to attend and speak at government meetings. The district attorney has the authority to investigate Brown Act violations, and private citizens can sue to invalidate decisions made during meetings that failed to comply with the law.

Gordon says the folder was meant for someone else, and she didn't know whether the records were public. After we put up a fuss over email and Twitter, citing multiple legal resources on the matter, Gordon produced the documents—six hours after the meeting ended.

Now, if only we can find out what happened to Annex N.


Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.

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