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Lawyers say closed dinners in bad taste

Castaic water board members open pre-meeting meals to the public

Posted: November 11, 2009 10:12 p.m.
Updated: November 12, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
For years, Castaic Lake Water Agency board members have had private dinners together before their public board meetings.

Until two weeks ago, those dinners were closed to the public, leaving the 11-member board open to accusations of being as transparent as pea soup.

The dinners appeared to violate the spirit of open meeting laws that say elected board members cannot gather without alerting the public in advance.

The dinners gave board members the chance to privately discuss the public agency's business - which includes supplying 50 percent of the Santa Clarita Valley's drinking water.

Never mind that board members say no such discussions occurred - they were busy chowing down.

"It opens up the opportunity that there can be abuse," said Tom Newton, attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "It's a recipe for disaster."

So the board's lawyer extended an invitation to the public.

"We changed how it appeared on the agenda to provide more transparency," said Russ Behrens, the water agency's attorney.

Transparency in government is guarded by the Ralph M. Brown Act, California's open-meeting law that keeps public agencies from turning their meetings into shady affairs where secret cabals slice up power in cigar-smoke-filled rooms.

The Brown Act forces public agencies to conduct almost all of their business in meetings open to the public. Such agencies can, however, remain tight-lipped on their secret recipe for negotiating real estate deals or on paid personnel issues.

Since its passage in 1953, the Brown Act has been modified to include language discouraging private social gatherings among multiple board members, Newton said.

What Castaic Lake Water was doing may not have violated the law, but it was among the things the Brown Act discouraged, Newton said.

"It breaks the spirit of the Brown Act," he said.

For Dan Masnada, Castaic Lake Water's general manager, the meals are necessary and not the least bit nefarious.

The pre-meeting soirees aren't wild parties or secret society affairs at which backroom deals are made.

"If you expect people to come home from work and go straight to the meeting without having dinner, that will impact their performance," Masnada said. "The directors are too busy eating to talk business."

Now the meals are listed as open on the agency's agenda, and Behrens encourages any member of the public to come and watch.

But be warned, he said: Instead of Castaic Lake Water secrets being discussed, the public will probably hear lips smacking and get a whiff of meat loaf or lasagna.

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