Nearly two months after the fact, the public is still awaiting to hear how individual supervisors voted in closed session to settle litigation brought against the county by the Trinity Action Association. That is simply unacceptable.
Tuesday’s attempt to ratify Board of Supervisors Chair Judy Morris’s signature on the settlement only served to add greater confusion to a situation that shouldn’t have been allowed to fester this long.
For months now the Journal has tried — first informally, then formally — to ascertain the closed-session vote to approve the settlement.
State code 54957.1 (a) states the legislative body of any local agency shall publicly report any action taken in closed session and the vote or abstention on that action of every member present.
Likewise, it states in part “If the legislative body accepts a settlement offer signed by the opposing party, the body shall report its acceptance and identify the substance of the agreement in open session.”
County counsel contends no vote was taken in closed session and direction was merely given to staff to execute the agreement. “Direction given to staff,” by the way, has become the new catch-phrase for “we did something, but we’re not going to tell you what.” We would note the phrase never provides any “substance” of action taken and should be eliminated from the county’s vocabulary if officials are not going to define what that direction was. Plus, the broad definition of “action taken” nonetheless requires the county to report any collective decision made by a majority of the supervisors.
Others have indicated that yes, indeed, a vote was taken in the Aug. 6 closed session. Common sense would tell you a vote was taken. But the county would have you believe in the closed session the board just casually tells staff to settle a lawsuit, provide $95,000 in taxpayer’s money to the opposing lawyer, all without a vote? The only word that comes to mind is … bullshit.
We can’t envision any scenario where a lawsuit settlement and outlay of nearly six figures of the public’s money wouldn’t require a full vote of the board — beforehand and not two months later. And the public has a right to know how their supervisor voted and why. To attempt to ratify the settlement two months after it was signed seems unnecessary and doesn’t pass the smell test. One would think it should and would never have been signed without a vote of the board.
Yet on Aug. 7 Morris, as chair of the Board of Supervisors, and county-hired attorney Derek Cole both signed the agreement, as did those representing TAA.
We would argue the substance of the action and the vote should have been reported out in open session Aug. 6. If not then, at the very next board meeting, following the Aug. 7 signatures.
Again, county representatives have said they were waiting for the judge to sign off on the settlement. But that happened soon after the parties’ signatures.
That we’ve now made it to October still awaiting to find out how each supervisor voted is unacceptable.
It appears Supervisor Morris has worked hard to keep the vote under wraps. That’s not how a representative government operates, and the electorate would do well to keep this in mind come election time next March.
That she initially placed it on Tuesday’s consent calendar mixed in with routine housekeeping items doesn’t add to the transparency the public deserves. Kudos to Sups. Keith Groves and John Fenley for asking it be pulled and dealt with separately.
After a 2-2 vote failed to ratify the signature (with Supervisor Fenley leaving the room over concerns for the legality of the proceedings), the settlement is now apparently in question, though the settlement has been signed by both parties, approved by the judge and, oh yeah, to the surprise of some, the check has been cut and sent to TAA. How the county backtracks out of that will be interesting to see.
We ask the board to follow state code 54957.1, report out any closed-session vote and the substance of said action, both now and in the future. Doing so would be following the law and would avoid these kinds of messy situations.
And, yes, we’re still waiting for the Aug. 6 roll-call vote tally approving the settlement.