by Judy Hodgson
Editor and Publisher
I knew there was a reason I never went to law school. I don't think I have the patience.
In April it will have been a year since we ran across what we thought was a violation of the Brown Act (the state's open meeting law) by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors. We naively wrote a letter asking them to correct what we assumed was an oversight. We eventually filed a lawsuit.
In November, with a judge's preliminary ruling in hand, we reported that our lawsuit was over -- unless the supervisors decided to go to trial or otherwise contest the judge's ruling. (The court ruled that the supervisors had violated the state's open meeting law April 3 when they invited contractor Tom Dinsmore to attend a closed personnel session.)
In December we reported to you that our optimism for a resolution was premature. We were back in court two more times that month. At the end of December Judge J. Michael Brown issued his written order for the injunction ordering the board to release "that portion of the minutes" of the closed session that was attended by Dinsmore. (For the record, we had asked for the entire transcript with names of candidates blocked out but the judge evidently felt it was unnecessary after he examined the minutes himself in private. In his ruling he concluded that Dinsmore was the only outside person in attendance and Dinsmore was there for only a portion of the session on April 3.)
On Jan. 18 the Times-Standard issued a strongly worded editorial in support of our case ( "County should cut losses after closed-meeting ruling").
Then -- during the week of Jan. 19 -- the county released that portion of the minutes (reproduced below) along with a press release and a three-page memo to the media. The memo read in part:
"Although the County will abide by the order of the court, and welcomes the opportunity to release the segment of minutes ... it is even more pleased that innuendo concerning the entire process may be put to rest ...
"In other words, there was no 'ruse' by the Board as Ms. Hodgson implied, but rather a simple effort to gain as much information as possible about prospective candidates ..."
OK. You be the judge. Below is that portion of the minutes with Dinsmore in attendance (transcribed from handwritten notes). What do you think Dinsmore was doing in that session?
Text-only version of minutes
The county is continuing to claim he was just there to give input about a specific candidate. Although even that is illegal, it appears that Dinsmore went far beyond his opinion about a candidate, complaining about the shortcomings of the Planning Department and what he or his fellow committee members would like to see done to correct these deficiencies. I found it interesting, for instance, that Dinsmore told the board he wants the Planning Review Committee (PRC) to "filter complaints." Also, apparently the county attorney, who was taking notes, reported that Dinsmore had to be "refocused" from his broad discussion in order to get him to finally propose a name for the board to consider as an acceptable planning director.
What harm is there in all of this?
Well, for one thing, no one from the Planning Department was there to hear and respond to Dinsmore's complaints or to correct errors he made. (For instance, there was a time-card system in place.) But more importantly, remember the origins and the makeup of the Planning Review Committee which Dinsmore was apparently representing. The committee, as the Times-Standard correctly pointed out, was made up entirely of contractors, developers and those in the building trades -- hardly a cross-section of the community. And, specifically contractors and developers who had had problems with the Planning Department. (What about ordinary home owners? What about someone who is in favor of planning?)
It is important to remember this entire episode started with an interview with 5th District Supervisor Paul Kirk discussing the new board majority. Kirk described to us on tape the April 3 closed meeting as a wide-ranging scoping session to determine the direction of county in terms of the role of the county administrative officer and the problems with the county Planning Department and how those problems should be fixed.
What the transcript below shows is that our May 1997 cover story was on target: Pro-development interests had been heavily lobbying the board to oust both the planning director and the county administrative officer. They not only succeeded but they arrogantly bragged about it afterward.
One more thing struck me about the minutes below: Was there anything really said that could not have been heard in open session? Surely the complaints and suggestions from the committee were appropriate for everyone to hear.
But what about the person -- whited out "No. 1" on the transcript -- Dinsmore was recommending for the position of planning director? We are told it was someone the supervisors did not ultimately choose, but what if they had? Would we have ever known?
What the board is perhaps still not comprehending is that the public did not elect Dinsmore nor did we delegate to him the job of choosing county department heads.
The North Coast Journal Table of Contents