By the time they met a few weeks ago to decide whether to grant a permit for a controversial rock quarry near Santa Margarita, individual supervisors had already toured the site with the project applicant.
That’s perfectly OK — as long as they disclose that they took a tour and met privately with the developer.
State law requires decision-makers, under certain circumstances, to disclose private meetings and conversations with anyone who has a stake in the outcome, including project applicants. (Letters and emails already are part of the public record.)
Some local officials, such as San Luis Obispo City Council members, scrupulously follow the law. Others, not so much.
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At last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Frank Mecham acknowledged the board has been “lax” about reporting.
Supervisor Bruce Gibson was even more blunt, saying: “The board has almost not done this.”
That lack of compliance has never, to our knowledge, come back to bite the board. But that’s not the point. The board has been sloppy about following the law on disclosure and, as a result, the public has been denied information to which it’s entitled.
However, that should not be the case in the future; the board voted unanimously last week to put the disclosure requirement in writing, as part of the board’s rules of procedure, and discussed ways to keep themselves on track in the future.
We’re glad to hear it. We just wish it hadn’t taken so long.
The disclosure requirement isn’t some silly “gotcha” mechanism.
It’s intended to help ensure parties in quasi-judicial proceedings — such as nuisance abatement hearings and appeals of land-use decisions — have a fair hearing. In such cases, supervisors are supposed to base their decisions on information and testimony presented at public hearings, rather than relying on private fact-finding missions.
Such information gathered privately prior to the hearing can introduce an “improper element of bias,” according to legal papers on the subject. The disclosure requirement is intended to neutralize that. If supervisors disclose that they toured a project area, for example, the other side can attempt to counter impressions left by a site visit. What’s more, knowing they have to disclose private contacts can, by its very nature, encourage officials to meet with representatives from various camps.
As Supervisor Lynn Compton noted, “It forces us to meet with both sides” if supervisors know they have to publicly cite their private meetings. “It’s a good thing if it does that.” We wholeheartedly agree. We just wish the law went further.
As we noted, it applies only to “quasi-judicial” matters; “quasilegislative” matters, such as general plan amendments and ordinances, are not covered by the disclosure law, though agencies can opt to expand the requirement.
The Board of Super visors briefly discussed making the requirement apply to all items on the agenda but ultimately rejected the idea as too unwieldy.
We agree that it would be far too burdensome to expect supervisors — or any other politicians — to track each and every communication that could someday have a bearing on a board decision.
But we’re concerned that too much falls through the cracks when disclosure is limited to quasi-judicial matters.
For example, the adoption of the urgency ordinance for the Paso Robles groundwater basin was not subject to the disclosure rule — even though that issue was every bit as important to the public as the Las Pilitas Quarry hearing, if not more so.
We don’t believe it’s too much to ask supervisors to report private meetings and other communications on such important issues.
While it’s not required by law, the board could develop its own policy that requires disclosure during hearings on, say, ordinances and general plan amendments.
It wouldn’t even have to be done during the course of the meeting.
Members of the San Luis Obispo City Council, for example, issue “council liaison reports” that list their meetings with individuals on city-related matters, as well as their attendance at meetings and other community events. The reports are included in the correspondence packets prepared for council meetings, which are available online.
At the very least, all local government bodies should be following state law on disclosure for quasi-judicial matters. If they are not, we strongly urge them to follow the Board of Supervisors’ lead by developing a plan to comply.
We also urge going a step further by making the requirement pertain to other, often equally important matters, such as ordinances and general plan changes.
It may create more recordkeeping work for public officials, but that’s a small price when the payoff is greater transparency.