Are some of you sure that the Contra Costa Times has outlived its usefulness? Well, it provided a useful public service with its reporting on the Contra Costa County Supervisors' behind-closed-doors vote to not join in the lawsuit challenging Proposition 8. And, the Times followed up with a thoughtful editorial in Wednesday's paper pointing out how the supervisors' erred in not making their discussion public.
In its editorial, the Times says it opposed Prop. 8, the gay marriage ban, notes that the majority of Contra Costa voters also opposed the ban, and acknowledges that local governments should not join in every lawsuit regarding a state or federal issue, "especially during tight fiscal times." So, the Times is not taking a position on whether the supervisors' 4-1 vote against joining the lawsuit is right or wrong.
Rather, the Times is correctly admonishing the supervisors for holding the discussion on the lawsuit in private. In fact, as the Times reports, the supervisors, in their agenda for last week's meeting offered "misleading" information about the nature of their discussion about this matter. "It was only through the tenacious work of reporter Matthias Gafni that the topic of the closed-door topic came to light."
After reading Gafni's story about the vote, I wondered whether the supervisors had used the "pending litigation" excuse to hold their meeting in private. The Times editorial explains that "state law allows--but does not require--local governments to discuss potential litigation in closed session."
As I said in an earlier post on the supervisors' vote, I emailed Gafni to ask him if this was the excuse the supervisors used, and he graciously replied: "You were correct. Because it involved litigation -- joining a lawsuit against Prop. 8 -- it was discussed in closed session. And they didn't have to announce their vote either because they voted to not join the lawsuit. Had they voted to join the lawsuit, they would have emerged from the meeting and announced in open session how they voted."
The Times editorial criticizes the supervisors for their decision to hold this particular debate in closed session. "That authority to discuss matters secretly should be used judiciously and only if the county's legal position would be compromised. It should not be used to avoid a public airing of controversial issues."
The Times points out that the county wasn't putting itself in any legal jeopardy by having an open discussion on whether or not to join the lawsuit, which was initiated by San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Santa Clara counties. "All the legal arguments surrounding the case are well known to anyone who has been following the issue in the news. In essence, the issue before the county board was one of policy ... rather than one of legal strategy. It was a discussion the public deserved to know about and should have been able to witness."
Well, said, and shame on our supervisors. In that earlier post, I asked whether the supervisors were cowards or pragmatists for voting against joining in the lawsuit--even though the cost and energy required of the county to be involved would be minimal.
Whether or not you agree with banning gay marriage, the supervisors' decision to secretly debate the pros and cons of joining in this lawsuit is cowardly.