Determining when a committee is no longer a committee should be a relatively simple thing to accomplish. The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors tackled that and several related issues at its Jan. 14 meeting. Prompted by a fairly routine report about the board-appointed Community Economic Development Advisory Committee (CEDAC), Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kim Kerr figuratively opened up a can of legal, technical and policy worms. High on the pile was the Ralph M. Brown Act, the California law that governs the business of government and public entities.
The Brown Act demands that an agency such as the Board of Supervisors, conduct its business in an open, public forum with a written agenda that is published several days in advance of the scheduled meeting. The law also regulates how, when and under what circumstances public officials, and often their appointees, may meet, what they may and may not talk about and what official actions they may or may not take outside the view of the public.
CEDAC is a lawfully created committee under the Board of Supervisors, and as such is subject to the Brown Act. A subcommittee appointed by CEDAC to deal with specific items or pieces of items, such as Regulatory Reform, is also subject to the Brown Act — unless it’s not. That particular can was kicked around from several opposing perspectives during the Tuesday meeting.
Proponents of keeping the subcommittee “informal” cited its role as a regular Friday morning meeting but without the same participants who attend or don’t depending upon the issues or subjects that may be discussed. No formal agenda precedes the meetings. No recorded minutes are produced and no particular attendee chairs the gathering or controls the conversation. It is an open forum where anyone who wishes to speak is permitted, though it’s assumed that issues will be relevant to the committee’s charge, looking into regulatory reform.
The informality is seen by those proponents as a way to keep interest up and community involvement vibrant. All of those working in or around the committees are volunteers, and “innovation is spurred by people interested in getting something done,” District 4 Supervisor Ron Briggs said, and reminded all that if formalized, “we’ll have to have staff keep minutes (do notices, agendas and the like).” That is, there would be an ongoing expense to the county if the subcommittee were to be brought under the Brown Act.
Some who have been involved cited the “flexibility and freedom” of an ad hoc committee. Kris Payne, a former county employee and current member of the county Historical Society and participant in other community action efforts said, “Everyone brings value and everyone is important, and it’s important to have the back and forth conversation” that is much easier within the ad hoc structure.
Farm Bureau Director Valerie Zentner noted that CEDAC and its subcommittees have made “no attempt to shroud anything. It’s a productive committee and I would hate to clip the wings of any volunteer who (takes part in an) ad hoc committee. I don’t know how you apply the Brown Act to a loose group of dedicated citizens.”
Art Marinaccio, member or former member of numerous county committees such as the Charter Commission and an active participant in development of the general plan described regulatory reform as a crucial vehicle “not to change the General Plan but to implement the General Plan. I’m really concerned with the process of ‘killing growth’ through the Brown Act … You need to be able to make decisions, not to avoid decisions.”
Executive Director of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce Laurel Brent-Bumb used even stronger language. “Don’t handcuff the process. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” she warned. Advocate and former director of the Community Economic Development Association of Pollock Pines Jeanne Harper said, “Economic development should be based on what that community wants. I love the Brown Act and it has its place but not on an informal group of people sharing what’s going on in their communities.”
Michael Ranalli and Howard Penn, both candidates for District 4 Supervisor and participants in economic development issues, defended the ad hoc committee process. Ranalli described the Friday meeting as one with “no leaders, just a coordinator whose direction is to implement the General Plan.” Penn said the “ad hoc committee works very well” and questioned “how to keep it informal and inclusive. I’d hate to see it go sideways.”
County Counsel Ed Knapp took some of the “ya” out of the Kumbaya when he pointed out that the Brown Act addressed two groups, “one is a legislative body and two is everybody else,” Knapp said. “Committees formed by government, such as CEDAC, are clearly (subject to the Brown Act). With the regulatory reform committee, the facts are in dispute. Reg. Reform was not a formal appointment by CEDAC … Who is its membership? Is it an ad hoc or a standing committee? Since 2006, it’s been like a standing committee, (and as a) government-sanctioned committee, it follows the government rules.”
Knapp cited the case of Joiner vs the City of Sebastapol as a similar issue regarding the Brown Act and committees established by affected boards of directors. However, he added, “I’m not here to argue whether (the Regulatory Reform Committee) should or should not be subject to the Brown Act.”
Shingle Springs Community Alliance leader and another candidate for District 4 Supervisor Lori Parlin presented a rather different view of the regulatory reform committee from that heard earlier. “(Some community members) fear not being in the room when the ad hoc recommends (something) to CEDAC, who then recommends to you (supervisors). We might miss something important when we’re not in the room. Trust has become a big issue in the past year, and perception equals reality. Regulatory Reform should be covered by the Brown Act.”
Early in the discussion, Kerr praised the CEDAC’s members for the job they have done with respect to the county’s Targeted General Plan Amendment process but noted that “unfortunately it has gotten a negative reputation by people who say they have not been heard or considered.” Kerr also defined the group’s purpose, “to collect information, not to tell communities what they should look like.” She pointed out that four original members of CEDAC, Dale Van Dam, T Abraham, Jim Brunello and Gordon Helm, have opted not to renew their memberships on the committee.
Lest the advisory group suffer from burnout and attrition, board chair Norma Santiago noted the General Plan process as “an effective means of managing growth … We need to provide a strategy they can work from.”
“Totally,” Kerr interjected. “They want to produce (in accordance with) the General Plan. CEDAC (that is, economic development) won’t go away as an issue.”
Briggs earlier noted the value of CEDAC as part of the effort to cut regulatory “red tape. We need public involvement, (but) do we need all these subcommittees?”
District 1 Supervisor Ron Mikulaco tacked on to that thought, admitting, “I struggle and could not explain what all these entities do.”
Brian Veerkamp, District 3 supervisor, offered a motion to send the decision back to the CEDAC group to determine if it wants its subcommittee to be formally brought under the Brown Act.
“Give direction, get out of the way and let them get it done,” Veerkamp concluded.
The board then voted unanimously to do just that.