by Judy Hodgson
By the time you read this you may already know that The Journal has filed a lawsuit against the County of Humboldt and, specifically, the Board of Supervisors. I would like to explain why and what we hope to accomplish.
Readers may recall in May we published an investigative report on county politics triggered by the forced resignations of the county administrative officer and the planning director. While gathering information for that story, we discovered what we believe to be a violation of the Brown Act, the state's open meeting law. Supervisors had invited the chairman of the Planning Review Committee, an advisory committee, into a closed session to discuss a candidate they were considering for interim planning director. When the chairman could not attend, they asked an alternate member of the committee who did attend.
To a skeptical person -- a reporter, for instance -- these invitations might mean that someone other than the Board of Supervisors had veto power over who was going to fill this important position. At the very least, the supervisors' selective invitations could be interpreted to mean that that person's opinion was more valuable than the excluded members of that committee.
And what about the opinions of members of the Surface Mining Advisory Committee? Were the supervisors interested in what they had to say? What about members of the McKinleyville Citizens Advisory Committee? I'm sure they have important opinions to share about who should guide the Planning Department. What about the rest of the public?
We filed a formal protest and expected the county to rectify what may have been just a mistake by revealing what went on in that closed session. (The public has a right to know.) Instead, the supervisors responded through their special attorney that they did nothing wrong.
Since the supervisors are refusing to admit any wrongdoing, it is highly likely they will do it again. So we are now taking the next step by asking the courts to decide. If the court rules that the supervisors did indeed violate the Brown Act, it also has the option to order them not to do it again under penalty of contempt. The court may also order them to release minutes of the meeting or to reconstruct what transpired in that meeting to remove the cloud of secrecy.
The issue of the alleged Brown Act violation was raised in this column in May but was not included in the cover story, "The new majority." We decided it would detract from the substantive issues that were raised in the article. Many of those same issues have now been raised by the Humboldt County Grand Jury in its final report released last month.
Some parallels between what has been previously reported and the Grand Jury report:
As expected, the Grand Jury continued its examination of Child Welfare Services and this year found some encouraging news. The jurors noted "increased confidence in Humboldt County child protection system ... in the face of ever increasing caseloads."
The Grand Jury also took positive note of an amendment to the state Welfare and Institutions Code in January that put more emphasis on protection of children and less on parental rights. Many who have been following this issue know that there has been an imbalance for too many years that gave preference to family reunification sometimes at the expense of a child's safety.
To be sure there are children still known to Child Protective Services living in dangerous situations, but at least social service workers have more sensible state guidelines to follow.
The Grand Jury also recommended that the Board of Supervisors consider expanding the role of the Citizens Child Welfare Advisory Board to include selective review and sampling of cases in response to concerns raised by mandated reporters (teachers, health care workers). There is a need to protect confidentiality, of course, but this oversight function would be another way to insure that we are doing everything we can to protect children within the system.
Finally, the members of the Grand Jury deserve our sincere appreciation for their voluntary year of service to the people of Humboldt County.
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